In a contemporary America in which Martin Luther King is embraced near-universally as a symbol of American freedom, it's easy to forget that in his own time, King's vision for America was controversial – even radical.
In response to the Civil Rights Movement, Southern populist politicians rallied the electorate around pledges to preserve Jim Crow in defiance of federal law and federal troops. College students were murdered for having the audacity to help register their fellow citizens to vote. Even many white moderates who, in the abstract, favored the end of American apartheid, urged King to be patient, to seek consensus, to avoid disharmony.
It is in that atmosphere of conflict, of controversy, of confrontation that Martin Luther King is most appropriately remembered. He was a polarizing figure who stood for unpopular ideals in the face of massive and at times violent resistance. As usual, King himself said it best:
I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist for 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 water and righteousness like a might stream."... 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 extremist will we 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?... Maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Even today – and tomorrow – as we rightfully celebrate the great distance we have travelled, we might also take some time to consider the ways in which the South, the nation and the world remain in dire need of creative extremists.