Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King, “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” in Larry May and others, Applied Ethics: a Multicultural Approach, Prentice Hall, 5th Edition, pp. 312-324.

King offers a justification for his willingness to support some laws but to break other laws. He has been jailed in Birmingham during a civil rights demonstration for demonstrating without a permit. Civil rights demonstrators have challenged segregation laws that separated whites from blacks in lunch counters, restrooms, schools, buses, and similar places.

King addresses two charges: first, that the time is not right to end segregation, and secondly that he is inconsistent in supporting some laws but rejecting others. He give a classic reply to the first charge–namely, that the time is never right to end segregation. Supporters of segregation laws have traditionally argued that the timing is wrong, but one can say in response that a person must always stand up against injustice. It is time, King argues, to take such a stand.

In response to the second charge–the charge of inconsistency–King contends that some laws are just and others are unjust. He draws on different parts of the moral spectrum to defend his claim that segregation laws are unjust. He cites Augustine and argues that segregation laws are a violation of the law of God. He invokes Thomas Aquinas when he argues that segregation laws are a violation of a higher moral or eternal law. In the Aristotelian tradition of Aquinas, King finds support for his opposition to the segregation laws. Segregation laws, he points out, frustrate the personality rather than allow the person to realize his or her potential.

King then moves to the liberal side of the moral spectrum and argues that laws are not binding which the people themselves did not choose. When the lawmakers impose rules that do not apply to the lawmakers themselves, difference is made legal. On the other hand, when the lawmakers (whites) are bound by the same rules as blacks, equal treatment can be achieved.

Since the blacks are denied a vote under the system of segregation, they have no opportunity to choose the laws by which they will be governed. Because some of the governed have been denied the opportunity to give their consent, the segregation laws are unjust by the libertarian standard of consent of the governed.