Martin Luther King Jr. and Rebellion Against the State

by Derrick G. Jeter

Martin Luther King Jr. had a marvelously rich voice. As was, and is, the tradition and style for black preachers, King “pulled” his sermons—drawing out the vowels to underscore important words, then increasing the cadence on subsequent words: “Mine eeeeeyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Such wonderfully lyrical preaching elicited emotion from the congregation, and though some might think it emotionalism it’s intent was never to manipulate the audience. It was a style of preaching that emotionally harkened back to the hard toil and heaven burden of slavery. For King, it wasn’t pretense, as something to put on; even in private conversation King retained that sermonic lilt in his voice, drawing you into his commanding presence and demanding that you listen.
As a preacher, King was easy on the ears, but not on the conscious. He spoke with the voice of a prophet, and very few people can stand a prophet in their midst. Prophets have a way of upsetting long established apple carts.
Of course, most of us remember King for his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”—and it’s right that we do so, if for no other reason than for this one magnificent work of rhetoric. But there are many more reasons why we should remember him. During the turbulent times that were the Sixties, King was the the leading voice for African Americans; their most articulate leader since Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, or W. E. B. Dubious. As a public speaker, King was persuasive and eloquent; not so much delivering his speeches as “preaching” his speeches. What many don’t know, however, was that King was just as persuasive and eloquent with his pen as he was with his voice.
As a civil rights advocate, King was deeply moved and impressed with Mahatma Gandhi’s dedication to non-violent resistance to British rule in India. Adopting the same strategy as Gandhi, King began marches and boycotts to draw attention to the inequality of America’s laws as they applied to blacks. His activities often landed him in jail—arrested thirty times. One of these times would produce an essay on social justice and a carefully articulated argument as to when and how citizens of the United States could rebel against those in charge of the government.
On April 16, 1963, after King was arrested for “parading without a permit” in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, he answered an open letter written by eight local clergymen that they had published that January. These clergymen pressed upon King to allow the issue of segregation and integration to processed through the courts without marches or boycotts from his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They branded King as an “outsider,” charging that a march in their city would be “untimely” and potential destructive. King’s response, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” masterfully laid waste their claim.
After deftly setting aside the charge of interloper and bringing these clergymen to task for decrying the demonstrations taking place within the city, while remaining silent concerning the injustices that brought about the demonstrations, King overwhelmed them with a 310-word description as to why their insistence for patience was so repugnant to the black community.
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brother at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sister with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
In the most famous section of the letter, in answer to his critic’s concerns about breaking the law, King established the framework of civil disobedience by laying down the logic of the laws of nature and the rights of man to rebel against those laws which violate the law of God.
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, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. . . .
Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. . . .
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationist would do. This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly . . ., and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tell him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.
Segregation, King argued was unjust because it stripped an individual’s soul of humanity. And while many more powerful things are found in King’s letter—especially concerning the modern church’s passivity in the face of evil and injustice—it is his arguments on civil disobedience that continue to echo down the decades.
Carved into the granite fountain of the Civil Right Memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama, are these words: “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a might stream.” This line from “I Have a Dream” (and taken from Amos 5:24) captures King’s fight for all Americans, for what he tried to live in his own life: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [his] God” (Micah 6:8). For King, and many others like him, this meant walking against the prevailing and powerful winds of prejudice. To have done otherwise would have stripped his soul of humanity and would have spit on the justice of law.