This morning I stumbled on a cardboard box of books by the curb. Usually when people are throwing out books, they are sloppy, coffee stained paperbacks with loopy font or yellowing hardbacks with subtitles so lengthy and dull they were never cracked open. Not today. Sitting on top of a stack of maybe two dozen unstained, happily worn volumes was a square, gift-size copy of Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

I snatched it up then read it (for the first time since sixth grade) over breakfast. What struck me about King’s letter is how carefully he lays out an argument for when it is appropriate–and right, and in fact morally required–to break the law. He is writing to fellow clergy, and so he relies heavily on Christian theology and doctrine, but he also offers several secular definitions for the distinction between unjust laws–which should be broken “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept penalty”–and just laws. My personal favorite is the poetic if vague, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” But his most concrete definition is quite clear. Here’s an excerpt of the discussion:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. 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.”

Now, what is the difference between the two?… An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. 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. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?…

Difference made legal versus sameness made legal. It’s elegantly simple. King continues:

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

Not as simple. In fact, quite complicated. When is a law that is just on its face being used in such a way that it is unjust in practice? Is it necessary to show that it’s being intentionally used to discriminate, or is it enough just to show that it does (whether or not it was intended to)? Litigation over the years since Brown has raised this question a number of times in various ways, and basically, the rule that has emerged is pretty much: it has to be intentional unless the discriminatory impact is really bad and obvious.

He goes on to claim that sometimes defying the law means showing it the utmost respect:

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.

And of course, that last sentence he wrote in a cell himself, a testament to it. Read the story of King’s arrest and the letter here.

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