MLK points out not all laws just

Published on Sunday, 19 January 2014 20:48 - Written by

Editor’s note: In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, today, we offer excerpts from one of his more salient writings. It’s not the I Have a Dream speech, as important to America as that was. We present portions of his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a missive to fellow ministers dated April 16, 1963:

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities unwise and untimely… I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial outside agitator idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. …

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. 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…

You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. 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 …

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. …

Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you...

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

Yours for the cause of Peace and

Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.