In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16th 1963) Martin Luther King, Jr defends fighting racism with non-violent protest.
“one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. “
King was arrested on Good Friday 1963 during protests in Birmingham, Alabama against Jim Crow. Police chief Bull Connor had protesters beat up – unarmed men, women and children! He turned dogs and fire hoses on them.
In an open letter, eight White Alabama religious leaders said the protests were “unwise”, “untimely”, “extreme”, led to “hatred and violence”, that the police were “calm”. Blacks should obey the law and patiently seek change through the courts.
King said one has a moral duty to disobey unjust laws. Like the Boston Tea Party, the protesters were heroes of US democracy. And, if not for them, Whites would be faced with the hatred and violence of Black nationalists.
King on “patience” (formatting mine):
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But
- when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;
- when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
- when you see the vast majority of your 20 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 eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to coloured children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
- when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat coloured people so mean?”;
- when you take a cross-county 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 “coloured”;
- when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and 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 are 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.”
– Abagond, 2016.
- Full text:
- Martin Luther King
- Birmingham, Alabama
- James Baldwin in 1963:
- Malcolm X – Black nationalist
- Message to the Grassroots – 1963
- Jim Crow
- Kohlberg’s stages of moral development
- White Jesus