. . . but my soul is rested.' So said Mother Pollard, a 72-year-old elder in Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, after several weeks of participating in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. King quotes her in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which I reread in honor of Black History month. Written in 1963, the letter is addressed to white clergymen who were supporters of civil rights but put off by King’s tactics of non-violent direct action, civil disobedience and willingness to break what he believed “unjust laws” – for which he was fully prepared to go to jail.
It is interesting to read the letter now, in light of current upheavals around the world, particularly the uprisings in the Middle East almost all of which began as peaceful protests and ended with horrendous violence precipitated by the state. Many of us have forgotten the repressive violence from threatened governments that confronted our own civil rights movement two generations ago. The demands for freedom and justice seem little different in Libya than they were in Little Rock; and the worries about whether long-repressed Arab peoples are ready for self-government seem a lot like those voiced by the well-meaning white moderates who prefer, wrote King, “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”
And in a time when the word extremist is hurled about willy-nilly, it is worth remembering King’s response: “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”