Message from the Dean: MLK Day: Critical Reason from the Birmingham Jail

Today we celebrate a federal holiday, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1983, legislation creating this holiday was signed by President Reagan who, along with Senator John McCain (a future presidential candidate), initially opposed the measure. The holiday was first observed three years later. Nothing that Dr. King accomplished came easily; the civil rights movement was a struggle against staunch, organized resistance. It is not surprising that even after his assassination, it was still a struggle to create this day of remembrance and re-dedication to the values of freedom and equality.

Video still from Tomashi JacksonAt MSU we recognize the life and work of Dr. King through a series of special campus events that replace regularly scheduled classes. As we have in the past, this year RCAH will be part of the program. On Monday, January 20, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., we open “Love Economy,” a new exhibit by multi-media visiting artist Tomashi Jackson, as part of this annual celebration.

MLK Day is a clear reminder of the importance of the past in our present lives. The work that Dr. King devoted his life to continues to shape our conversations and actions about race, freedom, and equality in the U.S. His 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – written five months before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. and in the same year that he received the Nobel Peace Prize – is a profound reflection on some of our most basic precepts of justice. Unlike his soaring oratory at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial before 200,000 like-minded civil rights activists, the “Letter” is an argument written originally on scraps of paper in jail and addressed to eight white “Fellow Clergyman” who had publicly criticized Dr. King for participating in non-violent direct action in Birmingham that violated local segregation laws.

In his “Letter” Dr. King reminds “the white moderate” ministers, priests and rabbis who have stood against the civil rights movement of the long tradition of protest that the civil rights movement builds upon. Like those who have gone before him (from Socrates, Amos, Paul, Martin Luther, and Jesus Christ, to Jefferson and Lincoln), he argues, he too is “an extremist for justice.” There is nothing wrong with this kind of extremism; that is what is needed to resist injustice when it is bolstered and protected by “law and order.” On the contrary, Dr. King argues, we have a moral duty to non-violently resist unjust laws because “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “an unjust law is no law at all.” However, Dr. King is not appealing to only their common religious beliefs. “The Letter” is not a sermon, even though it is about the mission of “the church.”

Why should these moderate clergymen, who praised the police who arrested Dr. King for their restraint and who believe in “law and order” first and justice second, be persuaded by Dr. King’s argument? Why has he bothered to address them at all? The answer, I think, is that he believes that the very meaning of justice and his actual practice of non-violence, if they understand them, will reveal to them the error of their ways. Why does he think that it is possible to “carve a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment?” Dr. King’s religious faith is matched by an equally strong faith in reason and exemplary action.

What is the conception of justice that Dr. King believes his “moderate” critics cannot help but accept? There are two parts to his argument that are particularly addressed to these members of the clergy.

First, he says that if his critics are so wedded to the idea that justice requires abiding by the law, then they must agree that any law passed by a majority of citizens that is not equally binding on the majority and the minority who voted against it is unjust.

Second, a law passed that is binding on the minority but that denies the minority an equal role in the process of passing that law is also unjust.

Laws that fail either of these two tests are unjust, and therefore “no laws at all.” There are other things that could make a law unjust, Dr. King writes. For example, laws that would require clearly immoral actions such as theft or murder, but Dr. King’s critics certainly would agree with this. What he wants to show them is that if they truly believe in the rule of law as the basis of public morality, then legal segregation is unjust precisely because it violates two basic principles of the rule of law.

The other part of his argument to these “moderate” clergyman deals with the practice of non-violent direct action. Here again there are two parts to his argument.

First, non-violent direct action that violates unjust laws is not violence. Its purpose is to bring to the surface the underlying violence that already exists and has been institutionalized. Non-violent protests do make people uncomfortable. They reveal the tensions and conflicts that already exist so that they can be addressed and eliminated. But they are not themselves a form of violence.

Second, protestors who engage in non-violent direct action are still not outside the law. That is, they must accept their punishment even though it is punishment for breaking an unjust law. This is perhaps the most demanding part of Dr. King’s doctrine. His argument is that by accepting punishment for breaking even an unjust law, protestors underscore the depth and sincerity of the beliefs and their commitment to the rule of law. “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

There are many things to remember on MLK Day; many reasons to honor the life and work of Dr. King. The strength of his faith in humanity is certainly one of them. So is his capacity to use critical reason to advance the cause of justice.