Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was an extremist -- for love and justice
The Civil Rights Movement was built on the moral foundation of Christianity
Don’t forget Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist preacher.
We all know of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as a leader of the modern Civil Rights Movement. That’s what he’s mainly celebrated for and why we commemorate those contributions with the only federal holiday for a Black American.
Too little is spoken about his theological roots and his underlying moral underpinnings for racial equality.
From 1954 until 1960, King was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, the only church where he pastored and the site where he began his civil rights activism.
Some people who revere King know little of his core beliefs. His upbringing – he was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers -- motives, and speeches were all influenced by his Christian faith. Above all, King believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and lived by the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Even though he was the most prominent civil rights leader, he considered himself a preacher of the gospel first and that his efforts toward ending racism were a part of his ministry.
He was called an extremist by the white establishment, even some in the white religious community.
When he decided to lead a protest in Birmingham, Alabama – where four black girls would be killed in a bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963 – he knew that the non-violent civil rights movement was at a critical juncture.
The Birmingham protest campaign began in April 1963, with marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in the city. King led the protest in Birmingham five months before the bombing and was arrested in August with other protesters.
From his cell, King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, a letter to the city’s white churches and ministers about all peoples’ moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting for justice to come through the courts.
It is in this letter that he penned the famous line "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
That statement is often quoted among Pastor King’s notable quotes. But in the letter, he attempted to articulate a response to the call by whites to end the protests. King opposed that because he knew without agitation, no progress would be made.
He replied to those criticisms on religious grounds, hence what I consider his most powerful quote from that letter:
“Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist? -- "Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist? -- "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
What Pastor King leaves us with are these questions: Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?
On a political scene, will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
Today, look in the mirror and answer these questions for yourself. Will you be an extremist for justice? Will you be an extremist for love?
During these turbulent times, may you reflect the love of Christ.