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

  • Ashley Jones

    Picture of Ashley Jones. Ashley M. Jones is a recent alumna of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She graduated summa cum laude with University and Departmental Honors with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing and a minor in Spanish. She is currently a first year poetry student in the Creative Writing MFA program at Florida International University. She has been published in Aura Literary Arts Review and Sanctuary Literary Magazine. Ashley will serve as Features Editor of Gulf Stream literary magazine in Fall 2013.

    How would you describe your experience at UAB?

    "My experience at UAB was pretty great; I did a lot and I learned a lot. UAB was so nurturing to me, and I'm sure that my experience isn't unique. During my four years at the University, I was able to be a member of the University Honors Program and learn along with students of various races, religions, and schools of thought. I was able to be an active member in the Multicultural Scholars Program and watch my fellow minority students succeed and encourage each other. I was able to work as an editor at three literary magazines, and I was able to do research – yes, English research – as a member of the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program.

    "My research was invaluable – I worked under Dr. Jacqueline Wood and I assisted her as she began writing a biography of writer/scholar/activist Dr. Sonia Sanchez. I collected over 1,000 articles of primary research, and although that experience taught me a lot about the process of writing a book of this sort and about the process of working as a literary scholar, I learned more than I could have expected from Dr. Wood on a personal level, who encouraged and prepared me for the world ahead that I would face as a black woman in the literary field. Her guidance meant a lot to me, and, even now that I'm in graduate school, I take her advice to heart and I'm both cautious and aggressive in my pursuit of a career in academia and administration. Seeing her achieve her career goals and work toward exposing the world to the literary merit of Sonia Sanchez and others excites me as I begin to make my mark on the literary world."

    How has the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Birmingham campaign, impacted you?

    "As a Birminghamian, I, of course, have been aware of the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham campaign for a while. However, I've only recently started to fully understand what it means to march, protest, and even die for a cause you care about. Now, when I visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, I find myself getting a little emotional. I can't imagine facing such a fight, and I am, admittedly, a little lax when it comes to actively fighting social injustices. I'm amazed at the sacrifice of those who fought this battle, and I'm incredibly grateful for their work.

    "But, as I get older, I'm inspired by the Movement. I understand the power of the voice of the people. If there's one thing I learned at UAB, it's that its students make their voices heard no matter what. And, drawing from these two experiences – UAB and the Civil Rights Movement – I hope I can cultivate the strength necessary to fight this age's battles and tell my children to do the same."  
  • Ashley Wilson

    Picture of Ashley Wilson. Ashley Wilson is a Birmingham native and 2010 graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, with a B.A. in History and a minor in Anthropology. During her undergraduate career, Ashley earned a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Fellowship and conducted field research in Fiji. Currently Ashley is a graduate student in the Anthropology department and plans to graduate with a M.A. in Anthropology in Spring 2013.
    Ashley Wilson on not forgetting the Civil Rights