There is a reason the term “extremist” carries with it such a strongly negative connotation. Extremism is highly dangerous in that when it gets to the point where compromise and engagement become futile, constructive progress in unachievable. Extremism drives individuals away from dialoguing with their detractors and toward seeking out ways to eliminate them. This is a dangerous state of mind. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was by no means an extremist. On the contrary, he was so dedicated to change by nonviolent means that he withstood blow after blow while still sticking to his guns (nonviolent guns of course.)
Many people like to rally around King’s call that, “Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” He states this claim in his, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King was wrong to classify himself as an extremist
and while it may have energized and excited his base at the time, historically speaking he simply does not fit the bill. In a Huffington Post blog by John W. Whitehead, we see a classic example of empty rhetoric embracing this phony extremism. Whitehead writes, “If we are to honor Martin Luther King’s life and legacy, we must be extremists for change and speak truth to power at every opportunity.” We most certainly do not honor King’s vision of making historic changes by conferring with one another and nonviolent protest when we seek to jump to extremes and defame our dissenters. This failed classification of Dr. King both by himself and by his followers is an unnecessary tarnish on his astonishingly remarkable legacy.
To further understand this point, let us consider a figure with similar goals to those of Dr. King but with a very different plan of action. Malcolm X was a true extremist. He is not more of an extremist than Dr. King because he was more passionate than his colleague. To think this would be to completely misunderstand my argument. X is an extremist because of the way he went about looking to establish change. Contrary to what you may assume, neither King nor X were ready to compromise on much of anything. They were steadfast in their beliefs and demanded unequivocal equal opportunity for people of all races. However, King was ready to make an effort at convincing people of that as opposed to X’s plan to force it on them or else.
At the end of the day, compromise isn’t always an acceptable goal and that’s just fine. It is completely legitimate to strive to convince your opponents to see eye to eye with you one hundred percent. But when you forego engagement with them and demand your desires be met without a dialogue, you exemplify extremism.
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