Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail | Eastern North Carolina Now

    I wanted to share a lesson I gave my US Gov. & Politics class this week. The chapter was on Equality and the lesson topic I presented to my class was the question: "Do we have a moral obligation to stand up against unjust laws?" I had asked a similar question last month when we were talking about the Supreme Court, its erosion of the notion of a "limited government," and Civil Liberties (historic and court-made). I had asked the class: "Do we have a moral obligation to resist unconstitutional laws?"

    Anyway, with respect to Equality and standing up to unjust laws, I pointed to Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham jail (April 1963). He made quite the compelling case. Here is my lesson, which I have copied and pasted from the overview of my lesson plan I submitted for my course:

    We introduced the topic of whether individuals have a moral obligation to resist unjust laws. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during the reign of the Nazis, certainly held so, but specifically noted that Christians have that obligation in the face of sheer evil. The persons we most readily associate with peaceful resistance or peaceful civil disobedience are the members of the Sons of Liberty (which would pave the path to our independence and define our values of freedom, and particularly in the face of a government that refuses to acknowledge its boundaries), Rosa Parks (who challenged the segregation policy on buses), and Martin Luther King Jr. who challenged the many policies depriving African Americans of their civil liberties.

    In the years immediately leading up to the Civil Rights Act (1964), those opposed to its policies of desegregation tried to deny African-Americans their rights to participate equally in society. There were state laws forbidding blacks from eating at the same diners, sitting at the same lunch counters, and lodging at the same hotels/motels as whites. There were also laws forbidding whites from marrying blacks. Although the 15th Amendment granted African Americans the right, many areas in the South, controlled by segregationist Southern Democratic Party, came up with schemes to prevent them from exercising their voice at the polls. And so they came up with poll taxes and literacy tests, and when equal rights groups tried to organize efforts to register African-Americans, they were met with opposition (often from local law enforcement) and with violence.


    In April 1963, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) coordinated a series of marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10, a local circuit judge issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" and leaders of the campaign, including Martin Luther King announced they would disobey the ruling. King was subsequently arrested and thrown in jail. While in jail, he wrote a very influential letter detailing the conditions of blacks in the US and their obligation to stand up against the injustice and stand up for equality. The letter would be a precursor to his themes, even his very words,, in his "I Have a Dream" speech.

    "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait! It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'

    We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.

    Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."


    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

    Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

    I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

    Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.


    We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws........

    Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained......"

Reference: Transcript - https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html]
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