Sitting in his Birmingham jail cell in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King had time to consider the nature of justice. As a Christian clergyman, Dr. King derives his morality and concept of justice from his faith; and as his letter is addressed to his fellow clergymen, it can be assumed that they each derive their morality from their faith. As a God-fearing American, Dr. King seemed to believe that the Constitution represented universal law written into the law of the land, and expressed this in his letter by distinguishing natural, just, and legitimate laws from oppressive and unjust laws that moral citizens should disregard. Dr. King used examples familiar to him and his audience and created an argument that not only displayed his compassionate and socially-conscious reasoning, but also created a moral foundation for the entire Civil Rights Movement that followed.
Dr. King expressed his conception of the legitimacy of the law clearly in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written as a response to local clergy who denounced his tactics of civil disobedience. As he served the penalty for his equal rights demonstrations, which he believed to be protected by the Constitution and God, Dr. King drove home the point that he and his followers demanded only those freedoms that had been promised to them as citizens of the United States. “We have waited more than 340 years for our Constitutional and god-given rights,” drawing a parallel between deeply religious beliefs of his audience and the ongoing fight to have justice represented in civil society, bringing the law into concordance with moral right (King par. 13).
The religious leaders who opposed the demonstrations in Birmingham – representing various denominations united in disapproval – stated their belief that protestors should not break local laws while demonstrating for their cause. Dr. King replied to this charge with a powerful question about justice: “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. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (par 14). He supports this in later paragraphs by suggesting that the Constitution represents a just law that has been unevenly applied, allowing the unjust laws of segregation to remain in force and leaving a blot on the absolute fairness of our founding principles.
Dr. King’s conception of morality was founded in his religious belief and reflected in his view of law: “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” (par 15). To Dr. King, a just law is rooted in religious morality, particularly Christian morality. The highest authority is God, and to understand the justice of a particular law, one must understand the laws of God, eternal and natural laws. To decipher these laws, Dr. King states: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (par 15). By his logic, the degrading nature of segregation is an unjust law and Dr. King goes on to again reference the religious icon St. Thomas Aquinas who stated that “an unjust law is no law at all” (par 14). This is the basis for Dr. King’s civil disobedience and why some laws must be purposefully ignored.
Dr. King uses his own example to illustrate how sometimes laws are twisted to violate natural law. “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” (par 18). Then he offers his logical conclusion: “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.” Believing that the Constitution represents God’s laws, he shows how the letter of the law can be manipulated for unjust reasons. He offers the solution of disobeying these laws as the only way to combat them.
Dr. King’s bedrock principle was nonviolent social change. He and his followers were beaten, blasted with fire-hoses, and jailed without ever striking a retaliatory blow. Their willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions showed an admirable respect for the rule of law in America. The letter states, “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” (par 19). By paying the price for civil disobedience, the Birmingham protestors were able to take the moral high ground from those who hid behind the strict interpretation of the law. Dr. King exhibited how by disobeying the unjust law, they were following a higher law, one based on morality and God-given values of fairness and equality.
While Dr. King is sure to warn against anarchical views of his statement to disobey laws, his argument against following unjust laws is sound and easy to understand. To Dr. King, as displayed in his letter, just laws can be observed to be those in line with religious morality. Eternal and natural laws are those that uplift and enlighten the human spirit. Justice lives in these natural laws, and to Dr. King, only adherence to these laws will create the environment of equality, fairness, and peace. Anyone that reads Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is sure to find the words in it credible, carefully-constructed, and full of inspired wisdom, which helped make the work a catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement, and the man a perfect example of a great American author and a great human spirit.
King, Martin Luther Jr.. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Why Can’t We Wait. ed. Martin Luther
King, Jr. 16 Apr 1963. Stanford University. 21 Sep 2008. ;http://www.stanford.edu/