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In Praise of Gadflies

Given that today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I decided it appropriate to read something by this great man who courageously battled for civil rights and desegregation. So, I pulled a book off the shelf containing many and various documents of great importance in American history, including King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” As I read through the letter I was struck by many things, not least his nuanced self-understanding not only as an advocate of civil rights but as one who endeavored to save our society from the violent expression of repressed emotions by creating nonviolent outlets for the justified discontent of African-Americans. King is certainly to be admired and there are many things worthy of mention in his famous prison epistle. I thought I would point to a few of those worthy sentences, though they might not be the most commonly cited excerpt of the letter. King writes: 

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Every battle against injustice must have its gadflies, even if they do not conceive of themselves in precisely those terms. I’m grateful today to live in a society that has reaped the benefits of Dr. King’s work. I’m grateful that he understood his task and did not shy away from it, despite the pain and danger. May we all be likewise faithful. 

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