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.
Leigh Willis on the Civil Rights Movement
Leigh Willis on his internship and experience at UAB