Monday, January 18, 2021

Akron Law Dean Peters on "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

[I found the following in my inbox this morning and subsequently received permission from Dean Peters to republish it here.]

Dear members of the Akron Law family,

Over the weekend, I revisited Martin Luther King Jr.’s astounding Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it recently, it is worth ten minutes of your time on this day devoted to Dr. King’s legacy.  (Be aware that Dr. King twice repeats an offensive epithet in the Letter to describe racist insults in the South.)  Letter from a Birmingham Jail is essential reading for all Americans, and it carries particular significance for lawyers.

Dr. King wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail in April 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and a few months before his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.  He and his colleagues had been arrested for illegally marching to protest segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, the fiefdom of the infamous Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor and his fire hoses and police dogs.  While Dr. King sat in jail, a group of white Alabama clergymen published an open letter denouncing King’s methodology of public (and sometimes illegal) protest and resistance.  The white clergy insisted that the anti-segregationist cause “should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, not in the streets.”

Letter from a Birmingham Jail was Dr. King’s response to this indictment, and there are many aspects of it that remain strikingly resonant today.  The Letter is a cogent defense of civil disobedience, one of the most eloquent explorations of that topic ever written.  But it is not an excuse for thoughtless lawbreaking or a call for disobedience without consequences.  And it is a powerful rejection of the urge to violence.

In the Letter, Dr. King argued that while a person “has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, … one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”  But King was meticulous about the distinction between just and unjust laws.  An unjust law is not simply a law that one does not like, or even a law that one personally believes to be unjust.  Rather, an unjust law is one that is rotten at its core – a law that is made or applied so as to deny the equal humanity of those it purports to bind.  For example, King wrote, “[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.”

Segregationist laws were unjust in this way, Dr. King understood, and so disobedience of them was justified.  But even those who engage in justified disobedience had to be willing to pay the consequences:  “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law ….  That would lead to anarchy.  One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”  For King, “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty …, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Dr. King thus accepted the crucial distinction between peacefully resisting a particular unjust law and “defying the law” itself.  And he emphatically rejected the legitimacy of violent disobedience of the law.  In his Letter, King denounced the “force … of bitterness and hatred” that tugged at some opponents of segregation, one that “comes perilously close to advocating violence.”  In place of violence, King advocated “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. …  It seeks so to dramatize [an] issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

These central threads of Dr. King’s message – the legitimacy of peaceful civil disobedience and the illegitimacy of unequal laws; the importance of respect for the underlying institution of the law; and above all the utter rejection of violence – deserve our attention now.  And there is another dimension of Letter from a Birmingham Jail that carries lessons for us today.  The Letter is an unfailingly civil document and a fastidiously reasoned one.  King takes his antagonists to task, certainly; but he never insults them or the intelligence of his readers.  He recognizes that his real audience is the nation and posterity, not the intransigent white clergymen whose letter sparked his reply.  And so he is careful about his facts and scrupulous about his assertions.  He lets his arguments speak for themselves.

Dr. King was an extraordinary man who lived in extraordinary times.  We live in such times too, and although we can only glimpse Dr. King’s greatness across the distance of years, we can aspire for ourselves to the values he espoused:  civility in the face of deep disagreement; reasoned argument supported by facts; abhorrence of violence; and an unflinching desire to make our laws more just.

Please be well; be safe; and be kind and respectful to each other.

All best,


Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink


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