We condemn the war and support Ukraine in its struggle for democratic values.
We also encourage you to join the #StandWithUkraine movement by making a donation at this link
Martin Luther King's Philosophy of Justice

The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is an open letter that was written in the year 1963 on the April 16, by Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the American civil rights. He wrote the letter while in a Birmingham jail in Alabama where he was confined after spearheading a non-violent protest organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Movement for Human Rights. The retailers aimed the protest against the segregation and the Birmingham government based on the race. The blacks were being segregated because of their skin color. They were treated as inferior people in the society who could not amount to anything but slavery. Contrary, the whites were all highly esteemed and treated with respect and specially. This was unfair because both the blacks and the whites who resided in the land were all citizens of America.

In this letter, Marti Luther King Jr. addresses several things that indeed affected the black people. He was writing in response to some statement that was said by eight clergymen from Alabama who were white. The statement was against the protest that Martin Luther was championing. They said that demonstration on the streets was not the way of fighting against social injustices, which they conquered, existed in the city. They were claiming that the social segregation was to be legally fought in the courts. This statement was not valid to Martin Luther because no justice would be given in the courts as long as the whites were the judges. They would always delay justice, which Martin associated to justice denied when he said the statement, “justice delayed is justice denied’’ (Luther).

Luther talks about “just laws” and “unjust laws” in his letter airing out his views and thoughts on the two (Luther). He gives a definition of what he thinks just laws are and what unjust laws are. He advocates for the obedience and abiding by laws that are just but strongly and confidently advocates for the disobedience of all unjust laws. Luther says that one has both moral and legal responsibilities in abiding by the laws that are just. On the other hand, he says that one may not have the legal responsibility but has the moral responsibility to disobey the unjust laws.

In trying to define the just laws, Martin Luther says that they are those laws that will be in line with God’s law or the moral law. On the other hand, he says that the unjust laws are never in harmony with the law of God. They seem to legalize the breaking of God’s law. He borrows the words of St. Thomas Aquinas by saying that unjust laws contradict the natural and the eternal law. Luther further defines just laws as those that uplift the personality of humanity while the unjust laws usually degrade the personalities of humanity. In his definitions, he alludes to the example of segregation as being an unjust law. This is because segregation destroys personality besides distorting the soul. He says that segregation normally gives the person practicing it a wrong preconception of superiority while to the person segregated a wrong preconception of inferiority. Segregation is both awful and wrong as far as morality is concerned.

Martin Luther King further argues by giving an example of an unjust law as being the code where the majorities who have the power force the minority who are powerless to obey it but make it not binding on their own selves. On the other hand, he says that contrary, a just law is that which the powerful majority compel the powerless minority to follow but they still follow the same law themselves. He further says that unjust laws are those that are formed and legalized by the majority, which the minorities in the society were not given the opportunity to choose. Therefore, the consent of the minority was not seen necessary in the election of the legislatures who make the unjust laws. The irony is that the minority are forced to obey the formed laws without failure. Luther gives a specific example of the Alabama legislature, which played the center role in the formulation of the segregation laws. He says that this legislature itself was not democratically elected in that the Negroes were not given the opportunity to participate in the election process.

Martin Luther argues out so well, when bringing out the differences between the just laws and the unjust laws, by narrowing down to the segregation that the black people in Alabama were suffering. He shows how unjustly the whites treat the black people. For instance, their homes are attacked and their towns bombed by the white people. The blacks are denied the access to some public amenities with a specific reason that only the white people are allowed into them. For instance, segregation is seen in the public schools and even hospitals. The irony in this is brought out by the fact that the blacks are segregated and denied to use an amenity that is supposed to be used by the entire public. All the citizens of America should have access to all the public utilities but this is not the case in Alabama. This happens because of the existence of segregation laws, which Luther considers unjust.

Luther also gives one example of a just law, which he says that he encourages the people to abide by. This is the Supreme Court’s decision that was made in 1954, which made it illegal for the practice of segregation in public schools. He uses this to bring out the paradox that is there in Alabama, where inasmuch as segregation was outlawed in public schools, the same was still a daily practice by the whites. He also supports his argument by pointing out the fact that justice is denied to the black people in the very courts that are supposed to play a neutral role when dealing with the law. He says that justice delayed is justice denied yet this was the norm where the blacks were kept on waiting before they could receive what legally belonged to them. He uses this to explain the reasons why he is in support of the protests that are out to go against the unjust laws.

Luther also supports his argument by quoting Paul Tillich who said that sin is separation. He says that segregation is separation and, therefore, it is actually sin. It is against the law of God, which warns against sin. He says conclusively that those were the very reasons as to why he urged people to obey the 1954 ruling by the Court, but disobey the segregation laws because they were wrong morally.

According to Martin Luther King, it is moral to break laws. According to his explanation, he explains the two kinds of laws that are there by bringing out their differences and their moral stand. He, therefore, concludes his discussion by confidently stating that it is moral to disobey those laws that are unjust since they go against the morality set by God himself. He supports this argument by alluding to the Bible. He uses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who disobeyed King Nebuchadnezzar because his decree was against a higher moral authority to which they had full duty to obey. He says that they disobeyed the unjust law because they had to abide by a just law. He also uses the example of Apostles in the Bible, like Paul, who disobeyed the Roman Empire laws that were against the law of God.

The argument that Luther brings out is effective due to what he is seen doing before ending up in jail. He protests non-violently together with other Negroes against the unjust laws of segregation. He risks out his life to see the unjust laws being nullified, just like the patriarchs of faith in the bible. He is willing to go to jail for the sake of his goodwill opposition of unjust laws.  The argument put forward by the king is very logical and effective so to speak. The examples cited in the letter give vivid evidence on why the action has to be taken. For instance, the King says the demonstration-taking place in Birmingham is as result of the white government segregating the Negro. It goes without saying that gross unjust treatment against the Negros in the courts. The bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham still stand unresolved and are the highest so far. He further cites an example of blackmail by the merchants who were to remove signs of humiliating racism while the blacks had to bring the demonstration to a moratorium. Few months down the line, the signs returned while others remained.

Indeed, according to him the very purpose of non-violent direct action is to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue in a way that it can no longer be ignored by the authorities. He has earnestly opposed violent tension, but he is for a type of constructive, nonviolent tension, which is necessary for growth. Such nonviolent gadflies create the kind of tension in society that helps men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and goodwill. He supports the kind of action for the reason that a situation so crisis-packed will be created create that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. His good intention packed behind his activities makes the argument more realistic.

Order now

Related essays