In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. writes that there are just laws and unjust laws. He argues this first from a religious point of view and then from a logical one.
First, King argues that laws that create segregation are immoral in that they do not impart God’s love to every man equally.
Furthermore, they rely on separation, the ultimate punishment God inflicts on man, as a method of punishing other men, regardless of whether they have sinned. Since the letter is written to his fellow clergymen, the moral argument about unjust laws is appropriate in the context. However, it is his logical diatribe against unjust laws that most clearly and eloquently makes the argument against the state of the South in 1963.
From a religious standpoint, King defines an unjust law as one that conflicts with God’s laws (King, 1963). From a logical, non-religious standpoint, he argues that an unjust law is one which the majority inflicts upon the minority and does not hold itself to. The basic concept means that if the majority makes a law saying that they may kill anyone of color, but the people of color cannot kill them or one another, then the law is unfairly applied and therefore unjust.
King argues that many of these laws look much less vexing on the surface as they appear to have been placed on all people by all people, but he reminds us that appearances can be deceiving. King points out that segregation laws adopted by the Alabama legislature had virtually no input from African-Americans citizens of Alabama because the state had so thoroughly abused the voting rights act that there were counties in Alabama where the majority of the population was African-American and not a single African-American was registered to vote there (King, 1963).
King also points out that what is legal is not always what is right. For example, he cites the Hungarian Freedom fighters in World War II. By the rule of law, the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany was legal, but it was unjust (King, 1963). It was only right, he says, for those with good moral standing to aid and lend comfort to the Jews, despite the fact that it was illegal.
In the same way, it was only right in Birmingham, 1963, for protestors to give aid to the African-Americans who were being unduly oppressed by their state and local governments. African-Americans had been granted the right to vote by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, yet unjust laws like the grandfather’s clause and poll taxes and literacy tests were put in place to prevent the fair execution of the law of the land. In short, King’s argument was that the law was in conflict with itself and needed to be revised.
King’s letter appropriately described the events leading to the situation and other steps which had been taken to try to change the unjust laws, but argues that eventually it becomes necessary to take direct action to force the opposition’s hand. The protests in Birmingham were made to force the city to recognize the unjust laws and to begin good faith negotiations to change them.
King points out that there had been several attempts at negotiation previously and that promises made to the African-American community went unfulfilled. He argued that laws, especially when they are not uniformly applied, can also be unjust. For example, prior to Brown v. the Board of Education, school segregation was legal so long as schools were “separate but equal”. King points out that everyone was aware that they were separate and not equal, but only the separate portion of the law was being applied.
Finally, King makes it clear that civil disobedience is a valid option when the law is unfair. He argues that one can only be told to wait for change so long before it becomes clear that wait really means never (King, 1963). King calls righteous people to action, arguing that when the will of the people is to eliminate unjust laws then it will become reality.
- King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?op=viewarticle&artid=401963. July 9, 2007.