The law and Martin Luther King Jr

Fifty years ago this week, the great American preacher, Martin Luther King Jr, published a letter explaining his stand on civil disobedience. He was in jail at the time after being arrested for breaking Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. Some white clergymen had criticised him for leading illegal marches against segregation – a charge which he indignantly rebuts.

This is one of the most stirring documents in American history: a courageous and compelling defence of civil disobedience, a call to Christian activism and an intellectual defence of the natural law as a reflection of an order in the universe established by its creator. While gay rights advocates have framed the struggle for same-sex marriage as the “new civil rights movement”, it is doubtful that they would agree with Dr King’s strong defence of the natural law.

In view of its importance, we are publishing some of the most significant paragraphs from Dr King’s letter. The complete document is available at many sites on the internet.

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms…

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. 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, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. Continue reading

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