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It Still Isn't Nice

Martin Luther King, Forty Years Later

By Betsey Culp

Imagine leafing through a used book and finding a document yellow with age, hidden between the pages. Even if the text is a familiar one, it acquires a new significance because you have discovered it in an unexpected place.

Scott Harrison, the proprietor of Abandoned Planet Bookstore, reports just such an experience. As he sorted and priced a new shipment of books, he came across a page from the San Francisco Chronicle of Saturday, July 6, 1963. The headline read, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

On April 6, 1963 — Good Friday — the Rev. Martin Luther King and 41 other civil rights demonstrators had been arrested in Birmingham for “parading without a permit.” The North was beginning to realize that something very serious was tearing the South apart, as TV cameras caught police officers, armed with fire hoses and dogs, wading into peaceful sit-ins and marches. In Birmingham, black citizens disrupted the economic life of the city as well, organizing a successful boycott of downtown merchants.

Compared to the anti-war demonstrations that tore apart the United States a decade later, these acts of civil disobedience were polite and restrained. But their intent to overturn the existing power structure was obvious.

Opponents urged moderation. On April 12 a group of eight white Alabama clergymen responded to the latest events in Birmingham with a letter stating, “We are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area.”

King’s disagreed, in an essay written on scraps of paper and smuggled to the outside world: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was published in its entirety on June 12 in Christian Century and excerpted almost immediately in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. It appeared in newspapers such as the Chronicle, which prefaced its selection as follows:

In this time of decision in the case of the Negro American, it is necessary that everyone be aware of both the emotional and reasoned attitudes on all sides of the issue.

What follows here is the most cogent argument yet received in defense of the Negro who espouses action in his own cause. It was written by The Rev. Martin Luther King in answer to eight of the leading white clergymen of Birmingham, Ala., who besought him and his people to seek a course of moderation.

The Rev. Dr. King wrote his answer while still imprisoned — for non-moderation — in the Birmingham City Jail. The portions of his letter that appear here constitute an important historical document.

At the end of the year, Time Magazine selected King as its Man of the year. And a few months later, a white folksinger named Malvina Reynolds captured the turmoil in a song called “It Isn’t Nice,” which began:

It isn't nice to block the doorway
It isn't nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail

Because the intervening years have softened the image of the “Letter” and its author, the bluntness of its language comes as a surprise. What follows is only a brief excerpt. The entire text can be found at http://www.nobelprizes.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

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 won 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."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? 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. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

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. 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.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. 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.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.