Having defined one type of extremism as non-violent, Dr. King admits his pride in being called an extremist. He argues that extremism only means extreme devotion to a cause, and provides several examples of unimpeachable figures who showed extremism, such as Jesus, “an extremist for love,” and Abraham Lincoln. Overall, he argues that there are “creative extremists,” those who wish to create and improve rather than destroy (180).
Dr. King confesses his disappointment that white moderates have not made this distinction, but considers that whites cannot truly understand “the deep groans and passionate yearnings” of blacks. He does admit that some whites in the South understand the cause and are committed to it, and lists some of them. He praises these people, many of whom he speaks of in generalizations, for marching and suffering alongside blacks who are taking action (180).
He then lists his second disappointment, in the “white church and its leadership.” He notes some exceptions (giving some credit to a few of the clergymen to whom the letter was addressed) but repeats his overall disappointment. As a “minister of the gospel, who loves the church,” Dr. King had originally expected the white church to support the SCLC mission when it first began in Montgomery several years earlier. However, many clergy of the South have proven “outright opponents,” while too many others have “remained silent” in moderation and cowardice. He had again hoped he would find support from the white clergy in Birmingham, but has been disappointed again (181).
He notes how many “southern religious leaders” have encouraged their worshippers to comply with integration because it is the law, but that he has rarely heard them tell their worshippers to do so because it is “morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” He insists that the clergy have largely written off this struggle as a social concern, standing on the sideline instead of taking action. They have, he claims, made a “strange, un-Biblical” separation of the soul and the body (181-182).
As a result, Dr. King has traveled much of the South wondering “what kind of people worship” in its many churches. He does not understand how these Christians can so vehemently oppose – either through overt racism or through silence – the mission for justice. He continues to cry “tears of love” for the way that his beloved Church has let him and his people down (182).
He recalls how the church was once “very powerful,” when the “early Christians” were happy to suffer for their beliefs. However, the Church has become only a place of conformity, which reinforces society’s edicts, whether just or not. Early Christians would frighten those in power – and were deemed “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators” – but were firm in their beliefs that they were bringing an end to “ancient evils [such] as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.” He repeats that the “contemporary church” has become a weak and de facto supporter of the “status quo” (182-183).
And yet Dr. King believes that the church will pay for its refusal to challenge injustice. If it does not change, he argues, it will lose its followers and eventually be deemed “an irrelevant social club” (183).
He wonders whether he is too optimistic to believe that “organized religion” can enact change in any case. Perhaps he should rely on a more innate spirituality instead of in the institutionalized Christian church. His doubts are somewhat alleviated by the fact that many white churchgoers have joined in their mission, marching, protesting, and even suffering jail time for the cause. Therefore, he continues to hope that the “church as a whole” will match the courage of these examples (183).
Mostly, he remains optimistic, both for Birmingham and for the country overall, because “the goal of America is freedom.” He argues that the black man was on the continent before the pilgrims and before the Declaration of Independence, that he worked and survived through slavery and yet has continued to persevere (184).
For several reasons, this is the most controversial and extreme part of Dr. King’s letter. The most immediate of these reasons is that he is directly admitting that not only he is an extremist – a word that was sure to be frightening to much of his audience – but also that he is proud of it. In this section of the letter, he is at his most prophetic.
And yet this more extreme tone is largely balanced by the pains he has taken thus far to frame the discussion in legal and moral terms. His defense of extremism does not read as an expression of rage, but rather as the logical outcome of the points he had already made. Note the list of other “extremists” that he provides. As with his allusions throughout the text, they run the gamut from the most religious (Christ) to entirely secular, political figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. What he has done is link extremity to action, which he has defended in the previous portion of the letter as the proper course for a moral man to take in the face of injustice. What all these figures have in common is that they did not cry for patience or silence in the face of injustice (as he insists moderates have), but have rather stood up and demanded change.
This list of extremists provides the culmination of Dr. King's previous arguments. These men refused to choose comfort over justice, and were willing to change history because they were willing to buck the system and challenge the status quo. Individual action is again presented as the noblest course.
Yet again, Dr. King’s attack on the clergymen is powerful albeit implicitly delivered: you have proven yourselves incapable of distinguishing between extremism for love and extremism for hate. His final allusion in this section really drives the point home. He notes that the three men on Calgary (where Christ was crucified) were all killed for extremism. However, while two of them were killed for hateful extremism, Christ was killed for “creative” extremism. The clergymen ought to admire Dr. King and his brethren, rather than assuming they are of the same ilk as those who preach violence and destruction. And the fact that they have not understood this does not concern him; he has no use for their uninformed definitions. He has moved past appeasing them and is now ready to declare some truths as self-evident (180).
This portion of the letter is also intense because it makes the most extreme distinction between races of any portion of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He explicitly argues that “members of the oppressor race [cannot] understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race,” a far cry from the insistence on interconnectedness that define the early portions of the document (180).
(It is important to note, however, that Dr. King never becomes essentialist in his assessment. He remains always somewhat of what Rieder calls the “Diplomat,” providing examples not only of white men who have aided the black cause, but also of actions that white clergy have taken to improve the world. Nevertheless, this portion of the letter is unique in explicitly noting the distinction between races, and stressing that black oppression is far worse than whites could ever understand. Further, the fact that he can only name a select few white allies draws attention to the extent of the problem.)
Even in the more prophetic tone of this second half of “Letter,” Dr. King maintains an argument that mixes both legal and moral responsibilities. In fact, he directly attacks the religious leaders of the South for refusing to merge legal and moral responsibility. In effect, he calls a separation between law and morality a type of cowardice. When he chastises those who make “a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul,” he is suggesting that too many clergymen are fearful of challenging the status quo, and thus compromise their moral leadership (182). It is an intense and direct attack, an assertion that the clergymen should be ashamed of themselves. Again, he is no longer asking for their understanding; he is telling them that they are either unintelligent or too cowardly to accept.
In fact, the theme of conformity becomes paramount in these final paragraphs. His sustained attack on the contemporary church boils down to a warning about embracing the status quo for the sake of comfort. Considering the many distinctions Dr. King makes in the letter’s first half between the individual’s moral sense and the group’s pernicious influence, his suggestion that the church serves the group is quite intense. In effect, Dr. King’s vision of the church is one of revolutionary minds that wish to remake the world into a holier place, where men can express their better angels without fear of reprisal. In his ideal, these revolutions are to be waged against calcified, unmovable social institutions that wish to protect their own power. Thus, the church should not be separate from the political sphere; it must instead provide a direct challenge to the political sphere, creating a tension necessary to act. Through that tension, man might evolve.
Dr. King’s attack insists that the church has not only lost its creative, extremist spirit, but has become one of these social institutions itself. His attack on the church states in no uncertain terms that he is not a problem because he is an “extremist,” but rather that the Church is in danger because it is not “extremist” enough.
And yet even within his fiery pessimism, Dr. King maintains a radiant tone of hope and optimism, reflecting one of his strongest rhetorical abilities. His optimism reflects a belief stated earlier in the letter, that individuals can change the world through action. In the same way that the early Christians ended “infanticide and gladiatorial contests,” or Abraham Lincoln helped to end slavery, so might he and his brethren end the conditions that continue to ostensibly enslave blacks in an otherwise free country (182).
Dr. King continues to express this optimism even when discussing the darkest of topics. In the midst of his attack on the church, he notes that institutions can become irrelevant once people decide those institutions no longer apply to them. One could argue that this is true of slavery by extension. And indeed, he talks of slavery in this context not to chide white men, but to celebrate the power of persistence. He believes that the atrocities of slavery illustrate that the oppressed class will continue to push for itself, as individuals fight for change. It is telling that his list of the South’s real heroes does not include many generalizations, but in fact details individual actions, whether those of Rosa Parks, James Meredith, or unnamed people.
The fact that these people are all black, or that the history of America he provides is African-American, is not accidental. Instead, it reminds us that Dr. King’s optimism was ultimately not based on his white allies. He does not grant them the power to give his people their God-given and Constitutionally protected freedoms. Instead, his success will be contingent on the power and persistence of the black man. In fact, Dr. King tells a version of American history that is the black man’s history, to insist that they are not tangential or surviving at the mercy of greater American society, but are instead immersed in its lifeblood.
The “Letter” becomes what Rieder calls “a proclamation of black sufficiency” (94). Fascinatingly, though, his audience remains not black people whom he wishes to inspire, but rather a white, moderate audience that he wishes to inform. He wants these people to know that he and his brethren would appreciate their support for justice, but will persevere even without it.
It is easy to see why Rieder calls this the “Prophet” portion of the letter. And yet what truly distinguishes “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an iconic text is that it is never one thing. Here, as throughout the text, Dr. King refuses to be either preacher or lecturer, teacher or student, victim or hero, but is all these things at once. He embraces the contradictions inherent in himself, his cause, and his oppressors, knowing that by confronting tension (rather than running away from it, as he believes moderates do), he and mankind will continue to evolve.