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King’s Views on Just and Unjust Laws

September 17, 2010

In our country there are two types of laws. We have just laws and unjust laws. In Martin Luther King’s opinion, we as members of the United States should obey just laws without hesitance. He claimed that, “one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.” He also claimed, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Unjust laws in his mind were no laws at all. They were laws placed here that needed to be broken.
Martin Luther King saw that segregation was not only rooted in unjust laws, but from groups who placed the laws on minorities expecting them to follow. However, these majority groups fail to follow the law themselves, therefore making it unjust. King felt that we should never obey an unjust law. He felt it necessary for us to obey unjust laws in non violent ways in order to gain civil rights, and that the supreme courts were not the way to solve segregation. He made this clear by coming to Birmingham in the first place. King thought it necessary to show direct action. He himself claimed, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” In this quote King makes it clear that he is upset with the way Birmingham has handled the segregation issues, and that nonviolent direct action is the only resort. Sit ins, marches, etc. were now the only tools they could use to lead to negotiation. King chose this path because there were no other options.
Negotiation was the original form of battling segregation. According to King, “In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiations; self-purification; and direct action.” Negotiation was initially the method used to solve the problem, however after promises from Birmingham’s economic leaders were broken, King and his followers had no other choice but to proceed on to direct action. He says it best when he remarks, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” That is exactly the point of the movement in Birmingham. It was not the fact that King wanted to start tension; it was that he knew through direct action he could enforce negotiation upon city officials of Birmingham.

3 Comments
  1. Amani permalink
    September 19, 2010 3:13 AM

    “ Justice too long delayed is justice denied”, I believe this is the main concept of “letter from a Birmingham jail”. In order for one to gain justice they must fight for it. If an individual waits around for something to happen, than nothing will change. Just like you mentioned in your post, using non-violent direct action like marches are a way for one to fight for justice and just like Martin Luther King mentions” for there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest”. If one were to commit a violent act than they would simply be committing an unjust law, and it wouldn’t get them anywhere.

    Furthermore, King explains, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in it’s application”. In this statement he explains that an action may be just in one end, and unjust in another end but it won’t be effective unless it’s just in everyway. Yet, if an individual were to commit an unjust law than they must be willing to accept the consequences.

    With this quote in mind, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands”, I am reminded of leaders like Gandhi, who used non-violent movements to fight for civil rights, or Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and I remember that without people like them than justice would not be around today.

  2. Vidya permalink
    September 19, 2010 2:13 PM

    This is a good summary of MLK’s main ideas. I wanted to point out a few things:
    – Firstly, I agree that the main purpose of the demonstrations in Birmingham was to enforce negotiation, but I also think that it was just as much to create tension. To him, one had the choice of living complacently in a community of injustice and socially backward ways or living in a tense community while struggling for justice and social progression. MLK admits that he is not afraid of tension, and wants to use tension to spur social progress.
    – I also want to point out that whether a law is just or unjust will always be a matter of opinion. You note that segregation is unjust, and so the law is unjust, but even this is not supported with reasoning. It is important to take into account the basis of MLK’s perception of just/unjust laws; namely, Christian morals. Nearly all of his ideals are based off Judeo-Christian concepts of morality. In his letter, he defines a just law as “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.” (This is important to know so that one knows where MLK’s ideas are coming from; personally, I agree with his views.)
    – Lastly, I would like to note the interesting contrast between Socrates and MLK’s ideas of moral obligation to the law. MLK believes that one is morally obligated to disobey an unjust law, because “an unjust law is no law at all.” Socrates, however, believes in the concepts of reciprocity and tacit consent, that he is obligated to obey the law because the law has benefited him, and he owes something to his city. It is also interesting to note that MLK commends Socrates for his practice of civil disobedience. Although this is true, Socrates ended up accepting the injustice done to him because it was the law, while MLK fights to do the opposite.

  3. jbrasspolsci permalink
    September 22, 2010 10:14 PM

    After reading this article, it really hammered home the respect I had concerning the way Dr. King went about handling unjust laws. Dr. King was prepared to stand up against the system with the full knowledge that any serious backlash against minorities would be his fault. Dr. King was prepared to accept personal responsibility for his behavior, and the behavior of those he influenced. My respect was further fostered by his reliance on his own morals. This meant that if his morals lead him to believe that a law was unjust, he was prepared to disobey the laws of the country that it relates too. He had the intelligence to decipher the law, weigh up its merit and he had the inner strength to go against it if he felt it was unjust, humbly leading others to do the same. Importantly, he explained how, prior to breaking the law, he first went through a careful and thoughtful process. Before taking direct action Mr. King needed to confirm to himself the evidence was insufficient and a particular law really was unjust and, therefore should be disobeyed. Peaceful action had to be taken, as this was the only way to have his voice heard, even if doing so he could face a penalty of jail time. He collected facts determining if injustice actually existed, and then moved on and tried negotiations and self-purification, only after those steps failed did he take peaceful direct action. The key word ‘peaceful’ is very important, as Dr. King said, “Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” It is important to understand his intention was not to stir up distress by being arrested; he always had a plausible reason and a well thought out process, which he followed when confronting unjust laws. Going back to Birmingham, Dr. King understood through his non-violent direct action that tensions could potentially foster and, indeed that was the reason officials in Birmingham were forced to negotiate; a perfect example of how a passive aggressive approach worked for Dr. King. He stood by his own morals and was able to follow a process that allowed him to appropriately disobey unjust laws. Reading “King’s Views on Just and Unjust Laws” reminded me that the world has only had a few people with the inner strength, the morals and the strength of character to create change without violence. Unjust laws should indeed never be obeyed, however, when they are broken it needs to be done in a correct way. There is no better example than Dr. King’s illustration of the correct way to go about breaking laws that are unjust.

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