Quotes to Think By: Dr. King and the Need for Creative Extremists

What principles motivate our extremism?

What can we make of a world on fire? That question gave shape to a recent Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter. There was another question in the background—What do you see when watching the images on the news today?

The newsletter reflected on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s account of being “powerfully afraid” while he was growing up. His work and that phrase continue to come to mind as our cities respond to protests and calls to abolish or defund the police. The newsletter included excerpts from his book, Between the World and Me, and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Read that newsletter here.

Dr. King has a prescription for moving forward. We risk losing a significant opportunity when we get stuck in a debate over the words we use to advocate for the policies we need. Writing from the jail in Birmingham, Dr. King made an appeal for extremism:

“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

…The nation and the world are in need of creative extremists”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


We risk a lot when we dismiss extremism that makes us uncomfortable while supporting the extremism that’s familiar and commonplace. The question of the moment should look beyond the accusation of extremism to consider what fuels these acts. Where we draw this line of acceptable extremism and unacceptable extremism can tell us everything about the health of our democratic ideals.

That’s how Dr. King saw the work decades ago too:

“One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream…

Bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


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