Among the most important of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contributions to American history were his commentaries on the relationship between the law and social justice.
King’s views toward the law can be divided into two categories: law as obstacle and law as opportunity.
Law as an Obstacle to Racial Justice
Much of the civil rights movement was a struggle against law: against racially discriminatory laws or racially neutral laws that segregationists used to attack civil rights activism.
Southern police arrested civil rights protesters—including, on multiple occasions, King—for violating practically every criminal code provision: disturbing the peace, marching without a permit, violating picketing or boycott laws, trespassing, engaging in criminal libel and conspiracy. The NAACP was prosecuted in Alabama and elsewhere for refusing to disclose its membership rolls as required by state law. Several southern states went after civil rights attorneys for legal ethics violations. Montgomery used minor traffic ordinance violations as a way to undermine the carpools used during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Alabama prosecuted King on charges of tax evasion.
King often struggled to explain why he believed civil rights activists were justified in breaking certain laws—even some laws that on their face said nothing about race—while also condemning segregationists for their defiance of Brown and other federal civil rights requirements. He famously tackled this question in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he differentiated just and unjust laws. “A just law,” he wrote, “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 with the moral law.” Since segregation laws fall squarely in the later category, “I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”
A more challenging situation, King continued, involves a law that “is just on its face and unjust in its application.” It was this kind of law that landed King in his Birmingham jail cell, since he had been arrested for parading without a permit. “Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade,” he explained, “but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.”