Style Study: Doctor Martin Luther
Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked
us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action
program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented,
and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I,
along with several members of my staff, am here because I
was invited here I am here because I have organizational
But more basically, I am
in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets
of the eighth century B.C.
left their villages and carried their "thus saith the
Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns,
and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus
and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners
the Greco-Roman world, so am I. compelled to carry the
gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul,
I must constantly
respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant
of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta
and not be concerned
about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in
network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside
agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United
States can never be considered an outsider anywhere
within its bounds.
[. . . ]
We know through painful
experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the
oppressor; it must be demanded
by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a
direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of
those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of
segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It
rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.
This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We
must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists,
that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
[. . .]
We have waited .for more
than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.
nations of Asia and Africa are
moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence,
but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining
a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for
those who have never felt the stinging dark 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 twenty 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 colored 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 colored
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 "colored"; 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 no forever
fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then
you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 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
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
decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools,
at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously
to break laws. One may won ask: "How can you advocate
breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer
lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just
I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One
has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey
laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey
unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an
unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference
between the two? How does one determine whether a law is
just or unjust? A
just law is
a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the
law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony
the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas:
An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal
.law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality
is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation
distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives
a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false
sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-
it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship
and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.
Hence segregation is not only politically, economically
unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich
said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential
expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement,
his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men
obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is
morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation
for they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete
example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code
that a numerical or power
majority group compels a minority group to obey but
does not make
binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By
the same token, a just law is a code that a majority
a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow
itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if
it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of
denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or
law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which
set up that state's segregation laws was democratically
Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are
used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters,
there are some counties in which, even though Negroes
constitute a majority of the population, not a single
Negro is registered.
Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered
Sometimes a law is just
on its face and unjust in its application. For instance,
I have been arrested
on a charge of parading
without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong
in having an ordinance which requires a permit for
an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to
maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First
privilege of peaceful
assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to ace the distinction I
am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate
law, as would the rabid segregationist. That
would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust
do so openly,
lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the
submit that an individual who breaks a law that
conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly
accepts the penalty
of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience
of the community over its injustice, is in reality
the highest respect for law.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. "Letter From Birmingham
Jail." April 16, 1963.
Click here to return to the list of sample
passages for style.