Student Writings on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Breaking Unjust Laws

By Mark Jessup, an introductory Philosophy student.  

One of the sections that struck me in Dr. Martin Luther King's letter was his argument about breaking bad laws...

Obviously, the first point Dr. King had to establish was what made a law a “good” law. He began by saying that a good law is only good if God said it was good. Interestingly, he also brought in another standard (I do not mean to say that these standards necessarily replaced God’s law in his view), natural law. From this foundation, he could say, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality . . . Segregation . . . ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” In other words, it is natural for human beings to be treated as the human beings that they are, and when they are not treated as such, natural law is violated. 

With the difference between a good and bad law in mind, he lays out an example of a bad law that many readers should be able to use their intuition (for lack of a better word) to see the wrongness of that law. The example that he cites is the fact that African-Americans were in many ways barred from voting on laws that impacted them. This resulted in laws where a “majority group compel[ed] a minority group to obey but [did] not make binding on itself.” It would be one thing if the laws passed were favorable to non-voting peoples, but, sadly, this was not the case for Dr. King’s time. Readers should be able to see the injustice in this example especially since it is framed in a general way and stays clear of preconceived notions about the laws in America at that time.

Finally, Dr. King lays out a three-part procedure for breaking a bad law. First, an individual can “[break] a law that conscience tells him is unjust.” In other words, the law must be a bad one. Second, the law must be disobeyed “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” One must not be belligerent in their disobedience. Thirdly, a bad law is to be disobeyed “in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice,” and this results in “expressing the highest respect for the law.” This is disobedience for the greater good, not disobedience for its own sake.

By following this argument, readers can see that a bad law can be broken, but it must be done in the right way. If it is done in the right way, the true, morally right law is upheld.

Inspiring Students

  • Arielle Sullivan

    Picture of Arielle Sullivan. Arielle Sullivan is a Huntsville native and 2004 graduate of Huntsville High School. After high school, Arielle attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where she participated in the UAB Wind Symphony, University Honors Program and Pre-Med program among several other student organizations. In 2007, Arielle graduated from UAB magna cum laude with a B.S. in Mathematics. Arielle earned a second degree from UAB in 2008 with her M.S. in Mathematics. After UAB, Arielle went on to earn her Doctor of Medicine from the University of South Alabama in 2012 and has just begun her residency program in Columbus, GA with the Columbus Regional Healthcare System and hopes to practice family medicine in the near future.

    "…it’s kind of surreal…the first time I went to the 16th Street Baptist Church, to think that it was just a regular church service that I went to…nothing special, and it was under similar circumstances that the girls were in…just the shuffling around before service began before their lives were ended and the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham really took off..."    - Arielle Sullivan

     
  • Olivio Clay

    Image of Olivio Clay. Dr. Olivio Clay is currently Assistant Professor of Psychology at UAB. Dr. Clay has earned three degrees from UAB: a B.S., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in Psychology. Dr. Clay’s research interests are in racial and ethnic disparities, caregiving, social support, and cognition and mobility in older adults. He annually participates in the Birmingham Sickle Cell Walk-a-thon and his interest in the sickle-cell disease led to collaboration with Dr. Joseph Telfair, previously of the UAB School of Public Health, where they examined the properties of an instrument used to assess self-efficacy in adolescents with the disease.