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The Right Way is Not a Moderate Way

December 5, 1956 — First Annual Institute on Non-violence and Social Change, Montgomery Improvement Association, Montgomery AL


[Because of her recurrence of cancer, Smith asked Hylan Lewis to read her speech]


You have been extremists: good, creative, loving extremists, and I want to tell you I admire and respect you for it.

Moderation is the slogan of our times. But moderation never made a man or a nation great. Moderation never mastered ordeal or met a crisis successfully. Moderation never discovered anything; never invented anything; never dreamed a new dream. Moderation never wrote a poem, never built a skyscraper, never discovered a new drug; never made the first airplane, never painted a great picture, never wrote a great play, never explored a new frontier, never discovered new lands, never built a civilization, never dreamed a great religion. These great thrusts of the human imagination and spirit came out of daring to meet ordeal and need in a new way. It would be difficult to imagine Jesus as a “moderate.” Difficult to imagine Leonardo da Vinci as a moderator. Imagine Gandhi as a moderate. Imagine Shakespeare or Einstein as a moderate. Imagine the young Lindbergh as a moderate: He may be one now, but not when he flew the Atlantic. It was the act of a daring extremist if there ever was such, but it was a creative act: not the act of a destroyer, not the act of a hating man, nor the act of a violent man. 

You have done many good things down here in Montgomery. But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge. The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist? The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?



Source: Phylon (1940-1956), 4th Qtr., 1956, Vol. 17, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1956), pp. 335-341.