From ancient times to the Enlightenment period, the rule of government and God hardly came into question, both accepted as ultimate powers that alone could dictate the lives of the masses. However, with greater scientific discovery and evolving political philosophy, thinkers began to question the nature of laws, fairness, and justice. Social contract theories began to appear, stating that humans had an unwritten contract with fellow members of society to follow laws and values to create a more stable society. Men like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes philosophized about the rights of humans in relation to the governments and natural laws, and the duty that each party has to the other, claiming that citizens must obey the laws of its government. By the time Martin Luther King Jr. fought to ensure equality for African Americans, centuries of laws, governments, rebellions, and philosophies gave him not only the precedents he needed, but also the inspiration. Though his peaceful resistance may seem to oppose Locke and Hobbes, his greater message echoes their sentiments in that citizens and governments share an equal responsibility to each other.
Thomas Hobbes contended that people in a state of nature ceded their individual rights to a strong sovereign in return for his protection, and argued that a “dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge would make impossible all of the basic security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends” (Hobbes). Differing slightly but along the same line of thought is Locke, who declared that the state of Nature is the source of all rights and unity, and the purpose of the state is to protect, and not hold back, the state of Nature. According to Locke, “From this natural state of freedom and independence, Locke stresses individual consent as the mechanism by which political societies are created and individuals join those societies” (Locke). In both Hobbes and Locke, while the duty of citizens is to follow the rule of law in exchange for the comforts of civilization, in both men it is the consent of the citizens that makes this contract possible. In Martin Luther King’s belief, it is when the government becomes unjust that citizens must remove their consent and resist.
Dr. King expressed his conception of the legitimacy of the law clearly in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written as a response to local clergy who denounced his tactics of civil disobedience. As he served the penalty for his equal rights demonstrations, which he believed to be protected by the Constitution and God, Dr. King drove home the point that he and his followers demanded only those freedoms that had been promised to them as citizens of the United States. “We have waited more than 340 years for our Constitutional and god-given rights,” drawing a parallel between deeply religious beliefs of his audience and the ongoing fight to have justice represented in civil society, bringing the law into concordance with moral right.
The religious leaders who opposed the demonstrations in Birmingham – representing various denominations united in disapproval – stated their belief that protestors should not break local laws while demonstrating for their cause. Dr. King replied to this charge with a powerful question about justice: “One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (King). He supports this in later paragraphs by suggesting that the Constitution represents a just law that has been unevenly applied, allowing the unjust laws of segregation to remain in force and leaving a blot on the absolute fairness of our founding principles.
Dr. King’s conception of morality was founded in his religious belief and reflected in his view of law: “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 with 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” (King). To Dr. King, a just law is rooted in religious morality, particularly Christian morality. The highest authority is God, and to understand the justice of a particular law, one must understand the laws of God, eternal and natural laws. To decipher these laws, Dr. King states: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King). By his logic, the degrading nature of segregation is an unjust law and Dr. King goes on to again reference the religious icon St. Thomas Aquinas who stated that “an unjust law is no law at all.” This is the basis for Dr. King’s civil disobedience and why some laws must be purposefully ignored.
Dr. King uses his own example to illustrate how sometimes laws are twisted to violate natural law. “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 a parade” (King). Then he offers his logical conclusion: “But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest” (King). Believing that the Constitution represents God’s laws, he shows how the letter of the law can be manipulated for unjust reasons. He offers the solution of disobeying these laws as the only way to combat them.
Dr. King’s bedrock principle was nonviolent social change. He and his followers were beaten, blasted with fire-hoses, and jailed without ever striking a retaliatory blow. Their willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions showed an admirable respect for the rule of law in America. The letter states, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I 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 expressing the highest respect for law” (King). By paying the price for civil disobedience, the Birmingham protestors were able to take the moral high ground from those who hid behind the strict interpretation of the law. Dr. King exhibited how by disobeying the unjust law, they were following a higher law, one based on morality and God-given values of fairness and equality.
By using faith and the belief that an unjust government is no longer entitled to the citizens’ consent, King is merely making the point that governments sometimes violate the social contract first and citizens are forced to react. While Dr. King is sure to warn against anarchical views of his statement to disobey laws, his argument against following unjust laws is sound and easy to understand and has its roots centuries earlier in the words of Hobbes and Locke.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King Jr.].” African Studies Center –
University of Pennsylvania. 16 Apr 1963. 5 Jul 2008. <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>.
Lloyd, Sharon A. “Hobbes Moral and Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. 12 Feb 2002. 5 Jul 2008. < http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes-moral/>.
Tuckness, Alex. “Locke’s Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. 5
Jul 2008. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/>.