When doing research for my recent post on Crito, I came across an article on civil disobedience. The article compared Socrates’ views on the matter, with those of Martin Luther King Jr. through his Letter From Birmingham Jail.
To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.
A unique parallel in these two works is that they came to fruition from within a jail cell. Socrates awaited his death sentence, whereas MLK had been locked up for his actions defying the racial status quo in Birmingham, Alabama.
As Dr. King sat in his jail cell, a colleague brought him a copy of a local paper containing a letter entitled A Call for Unity. The letter denounced King’s activities as promoting violence and agitation, and suggested that they allow change to come through the courts instead of in the streets.
Dr. King vehemently rejected this approach, and in his letter he lays out exactly why.
To begin his letter, he addresses his critics, saying that,
If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day,
This should certainly be taken to heart to those who often receive scorn and criticism from others. If you’re devoting yourself to an objectively noble cause, then what good is criticism doing you?
He then addresses accusations of outside agitation, saying that,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
This is quite a bold statement. It lays the framework for the entirety of his operations of promoting racial harmony. But is this reasonable?
In response to the ‘Hot Summer’ of 1967 in which race riots engulfed cities across the U.S., Congress created anti-riot legislation as part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. We wouldn’t consider MLK’s behavior as ‘inciting a riot’ by any means, but it could be construed as agitation.
I’ve done my research on this issue because protests and riots have been ubiquitous over the past couple of years. I’ve seen damage done to nearby Baltimore, and much of the blame goes to people who came in from hundreds of miles away to stir up trouble.
That said, MLK defended his actions by saying,
Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
A fair point indeed.
A large portion of the letter is devoted to MLK’s philosophy on non-violent resistance. To understand the purpose of non-violent resistance, we have to understand what it actually is. The foundation of non-violent resistance according to MLK consists of,
… four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
One has to appreciate this approach. For one, Dr. King approaches this objectively. One can look at Birmingham in the early 1960’s and clearly see that ‘Yes, racial injustice exists here’ and therefore non-violent resistance should be enacted.
Self-purification is also in interesting aspect of this formula. Perhaps it could be portrayed as a sense of catharsis, purging emotions from within to keep them from bottling up:
If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.
What is a Just Law?
The debate as to what is just, is discussed a great deal in Apology, in which Socrates divulges his ideas. King gives us his interpretation here:
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.
This seems reasonable, but he then posits that,
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”
This puts a heavy burden on those that sit idly by, spectating as injustice occurs before their eyes. Clearly they are turning a blind eye to injustice, but are they immoral if they refuse to disobey a law that may be construed as unjust? That seems like a steep price to pay.
In the event one so chooses to disobey an unjust law, they 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.
Who Bears Responsibility?
One can’t blame the blacks who were subjected to segregation for their own plight, but then to whom does the blame rest on?
MLK points the finger:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Here he reiterates his ideology that people must disobey morally irresponsible laws. He faults moderate whites for standing idly by in the face of injustice.
According to MLK, injustice rests on the souls of others, reminding us of this famous quote from Edmund Burke:
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The common perception of MLK is that he was a kind-hearted, gentle man who spoke softly, yet powerfully. Though I won’t dispute this, in Letter From Birmingham Jail one sees a rare side of King, one that deviates from the portrait of his life as portrayed by history.
You can see the anger and frustration in his tone. It’s not one of seeking vengeance, but rather one filled with moral outrage that a solution to racial segregation hasn’t come to fruition.
It also will induce several agreeable head nods for the well-read individual as King quotes, off the top of his head, the likes of St. Augustine and St. Aquinas, as well as referencing other religious and philosophical figures like Socrates.
I’m quite glad I stumbled upon this letter, as it not only gives us a unique look at King and his writing style, but a piece of writing that is filled with powerful wisdom and emotions. It’s also interesting to note that this letter was one of the precursors that gave the Civil Rights Movement a tremendous push, and ultimately paved the way for full equality for all races.
I haven’t found a great version of Letter from Birmingham Jail, though this is the version I read. There are numerous typos, but it gets the job done. Please let me know if you find another solid copy.
If you’re interested in reading further about MLK’s life, I wrote a post ‘Life Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.‘