MLK at a Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.
Rowland Scherman - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (Taken August 28th, 1963)

Today is Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Day, and like we do every year in hon­or of Dr. King’s mem­o­ry, I’m post­ing an excerpt from his Let­ter From Birm­ing­ham Jail.

In these pas­sages, Dr. King is explain­ing that not all laws are cre­at­ed equal. Laws are made by humans, and humans unfor­tu­nate­ly have a long his­to­ry of dis­crim­i­nat­ing against each oth­er. King says that we have a moral respon­si­bil­i­ty to obey just laws, and a moral respon­si­bil­i­ty to dis­obey unjust laws. That’s how we expand freedom.

(Note that typos are con­tained in the orig­i­nal manuscript.)

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.

Seg­re­ga­tion, to use the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of the Jew­ish philoso­pher Mar­tin Buber, sub­sti­tutes an “I it” rela­tion­ship for an “I thou” rela­tion­ship and ends up rel­e­gat­ing per­sons to the sta­tus of things.

Hence seg­re­ga­tion is not only polit­i­cal­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly and soci­o­log­i­cal­ly unsound, it is moral­ly wrong and sin­ful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is sep­a­ra­tion. Is not seg­re­ga­tion an exis­ten­tial expres­sion of man’s trag­ic sep­a­ra­tion, his awful estrange­ment, his ter­ri­ble sinfulness?

Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 deci­sion of the Supreme Court, for it is moral­ly right; and I can urge them to dis­obey seg­re­ga­tion ordi­nances, for they are moral­ly wrong.

Let us con­sid­er a more con­crete exam­ple of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numer­i­cal or pow­er major­i­ty group com­pels a minor­i­ty group to obey but does not make bind­ing on itself. This is dif­fer­ence made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a major­i­ty com­pels a minor­i­ty to fol­low and that it is will­ing to fol­low itself. This is same­ness made legal.

Let me give anoth­er expla­na­tion. A law is unjust if it is inflict­ed on a minor­i­ty that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enact­ing or devis­ing the law. Who can say that the leg­is­la­ture of Alaba­ma which set up that state’s seg­re­ga­tion laws was demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed? Through­out Alaba­ma all sorts of devi­ous meth­ods are used to pre­vent Negroes from becom­ing reg­is­tered vot­ers, and there are some coun­ties in which, even though Negroes con­sti­tute a major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion, not a sin­gle Negro is reg­is­tered. Can any law enact­ed under such cir­cum­stances be con­sid­ered demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly structured?

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.

Take a few min­utes today to read the whole thing.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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