Martin Luther King Jr.: Letter from Birmingham Jail

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It’s Martin Luther King day, which means for most of us it is simply another day off making it a three-day weekend.

It’s important to remember that King fought against a legal system that in his view was unjust. At the time, it was unclear whether the majority of Americans supported him. It’s likely they did not.

Indeed, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King was responding to fellow clergymen from Alabama who had published a statement criticizing King’s non-violent, but criminal conduct: King had violated Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins’ blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”

As King wrote to Birmingham clergymen:

There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

and later in the same letter…

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 want to 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”

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