Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Reflections on Extremism, Lincoln, and Freedom

By Katie Needham

Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke of Abraham Lincoln in his speeches and writings, recognizing Lincoln’s accomplishments, most notably his writing and signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

While imprisoned in 1963 for his participation in a non-violent protest in Alabama, King wrote a letter in response to local clergymen. The clergymen had written that “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.” King disagreed and wrote the now titled “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to discuss why civil disobedience was necessary. In his letter, King examined the label “extremist,” using Lincoln as well as other well-known historical figures as examples of the term.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”….. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Later that same year, King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial.

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

King’s respect for Lincoln is apparent in his references and speeches. Though they lived a century apart, they each had a vision of how to make this country a “more perfect union” through greater freedom.

Today, President Lincoln’s Cottage remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. for his leadership and enduring legacy in the civil rights movement.

Image courtesy Library of Congress

Ms. Needham is the Administrative Assistant at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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