by Sydney Schwantes
Civil disobedience can be defined as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies” (Brownlee). Throughout American history, the practice of civil disobedience is largely (but not entirely) attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. The present-day understanding of civil disobedience stems from the results and accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement used civil disobedience to erode race relations and discrimination throughout the nation. King intertwined the definition of civil disobedience with morality to bring awareness to the unjust laws plaguing America. The success that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement exemplified the impact of civil disobedience as a means of political and social reform.
Although a seemingly simple idea, the use of civil disobedience in the 1950s and 1960s sparked wide-reaching controversy. Critics were quick to develop claims against King’s promotion of civil disobedience. One attack on the practice of civil disobedience arose after King’s march to Birmingham jail. In a letter titled “An Appeal to Law and Order and Common Sense,” a group of eight clergymen urged protesters to refrain from taking direct action in the streets, claiming that it was an unsuccessful means to end segregation. In response to the criticism, King worked to justify the practice of civil disobedience. .
King upholds the method of direct action in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and in his debate with James Kilpatrick; “The Nation’s Future.” In the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King emphasized the use of civil disobedience as a pivotal device for the Civil Rights Movement. King’s advocation for civil disobedience stemmed from the influence of Henry David Thoreau’s essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’ and the teaching of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (Myers 6). From these teachings, King emphasized civil disobedience as an act of love and nonviolence to achieve social reform.
King crafted a defense for the practice of civil disobedience through three conditions: “(1) for the right reasons; (2) in the right spirit; and (3) by the right people” (Myers 8). In the beginning of the “Letter” King responded to the overarching concern of critics asking, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others” (King, Why We Can’t Wait, 82). This argument against civil disobedience implied that a person arbitrarily chose whether or not they would comply with a law. King countered this argument by presenting his belief in conforming to the “moral law or the law of God” (King, The Letter, 7). He reasoned that there are two types of laws; those that are just and those that are unjust. He stated that determining whether a law is unjust depends on if it was consistent with the moral law. The right reasons for direct action surface when the laws are unjust.
James Kilpatrick refuted King’s beliefs. “Mr. King asserts a right to obey those laws he chooses and to obey and disobey those that he chooses not to obey…” wrote Kilpatrick (Kilpatrick, The Nation’s Future, 560). Kilpatrick argued that choosing which laws are just and unjust was a personal judgement and that this did not exemplify respect for the law. King countered that direct action against the unjust laws of segregation was necessary “because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King, The Letter, 7). He argued that there are principles of justice the law must align with and if they did not, “[O]ne has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (King, Why We Can’t Wait, 82). King’s first argument for civil disobedience was rooted in the essence of higher law and morality.
The risk anarchy presents a strong argument against the practice of civil disobedience. Anarchy poses a threat to the rule of law and the democratic structure of government. King acknowledged that there are instances in which breaking the law may lead to anarchy, but the form of civil disobedience that the Civil Rights Movement utilized was not one that would lead to chaos. A person who decided to break the law “must do it openly, lovingly, … and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (King, The Letter, 9). A person who adhered to these characteristics was “expressing the very highest respect for the law” (King, The Letter, 9). King alluded to Hitler’s rise to power as an example of how legality was not necessarily equivalent to justice.
To foster motivation for civil disobedience, King turned to the longstanding history of oppression African Americans faced in America. He detailed the patience and attempted negotiations of the movement with political leaders that had failed them. Civil disobedience was needed to negate the consequences of repressed emotions, “if repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence” (King, The Letter, 12). Civil disobedience was the middle ground that provided a “creative outlet of nonviolent direct action” (King, The Letter, 12). King argued that this was the optimal option for the movement. To achieve civil disobedience it was necessary to awaken the moral consciousness of the American people through political pressure. Civil disobedience was justified because legal victories were stagnant and the people remained silent.
King’s argument that civil disobedience displayed respect for the law largely depended on having the right people. King reasoned that the influence of nonviolent demonstrations depended upon a person’s “willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation” (King, The Letter, 19). According to King, it wasn’t the nonviolence protesters who posed a threat to the rule of law but rather the violent actions demonstrated by the pro-segregation extremists. He wrote, “I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negros” (King, The Letter, 18). Those who practiced civil disobedience under King’s guidance respected authority, accepted punishment, and were therefore law-abiding. (Myers 12).
King concluded his letter by arguing that the practice of civil disobedience was inseparable from the rule of law. He argued that civil disobedience was rooted in the function of a democratic system. Mentioning the origins of America’s founding principles, King stated “… they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great walls of democracy which were dug deep by the founding father in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” (King, The Letter, 20). King’s closing thoughts firmly refuted the criticisms of lawlessness and anarchy.
Further assessment can be made of the strengths and weaknesses of King’s arguments for civil disobedience and the opposing claims against it. One of King’s strongest arguments was in the concept of America’s founding principles. King justified civil disobedience “by the first principles of the American republic and of free, constitutional government” (Myers 3). He cited the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as sources that permitted the act of civil disobedience. Through the nonviolent protests and sit-in demonstrations, these actions were trying to correct the unjust laws in society. King cited America’s first principles of democracy that “all men are created equal” (King, The Nation’s Future, 557). It is a strong argument that a segregated society is precisely the opposite of this value. A democratic system of government was implemented by the founders to create a rule of government derived from the people for the people. King’s argument for the practice of civil disobedience is weakened by his claim of having “the highest respect for the law” (King 558). Strong arguments are made with the claim that civil disobedience is a “threat to the rule of law” (Myers 1). Kilpartrick questioned the practicality of the nonviolent method citing instances when the method had resulted in “riot and disorder” (Kilpatrick, The Nation’s Future, 559). King weakened Kilpatrick’s claim by stating that if any violence had occured it had been “from the opponents and the extremist groups in the white community” (King, The Nation’s Future, 560). This strengthens King’s justification for non-violent action.
The use of regulatory legal procedures weakened King’s arguments for the practice of civil disobedience. King’s claims for respecting the law were called into question by Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick strengthened his side by discussing that if change were to occur it should happen “through legal procedures” (Kilpatrick, The Nation’s Future, 563). He used the founding fathers to support his claim. He further called in to question the ability of an individual to decide for themselves whether a law is just or unjust. This is concerning because if anyone could decide a law they didn’t like was unjust it would lead to the normalization of civil disobedience and result in anarchy. This is a strong argument against the practice of civil disobedience. It is difficult to refute but King stated that judging if a law is unjust is “on the basis of conscience” (King, The Nation’s Future, 564).
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King justified the practicality of civil disobedience through three conditions. The three conditions call for the acceptance of direct action because the continued oppression of African Americans was a circumstance where the practice of civil disobedience was warranted. The civil rights movement was left with no other alternative than to place political pressure on America that would bring racial injustice to light. African Americans had been “victims of a broken promise” and political leaders “refused to engage in good faith negotiation” (King, The Letter, 3). The standard legal procedures failed to provide relief for the movement. This was a strong call for direct action. Although victories had been achieved for equal-rights through lawful means, King perceived them as ineffectual. These efforts were “practically worthless unless reinforced by further, stronger measures that would be enacted only in response to sustained, intensified pressure” (King, Why We Can’t Wait, 34).
King’s advocacy of civil disobedience and use of direct action is widely recognized in American history. It continues today through demonstrations of nonviolent protest. It is used as a means of expression in society. King’s legacy upholds the right of civil disobedience to “preserve or enhance respect for law and therewith for constitutional republicanism” (Myers 19).
Brownlee, Kimberley. “Civil Disobedience.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Dec. 2013, plato.stanford.edu/entries/civil-disobedience/.
“Debate with James J. Kilpatrick on ‘The Nation’s Future.’” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 25 June 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/debate-james-j-kilpatrick-nation-s-future.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Received by Joe C. Higginbotham, Birmingham City Jail, 16 Apr. 1963, Birmingham City Jail.
King, Martin Luther. “Why We Can’t Wait.” Letter From Birmingham Jail, New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Myers, Peter C. “The Limits and Dangers of Civil Disobedience: The Case of Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Heritage Foundation, 31 Dec. 2017, www.heritage.org/civil-society/report/the-limits-and-dangers-civil-disobedience-the-case-martin-luther-king-jr.
Winston, Kate. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Civil Disobedience, 2020, disobediencecivil.weebly.com/dr-martin-luther-king-jr.html.
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