This part of the Letter probably describes how a lot of us have felt when others don’t share our sense of moral outrage over some particular issue:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Who among us has not felt such frustration?  It is truly difficult when dealing with complacent, like-minded people who don’t seem to care about injustice.  Disagreement about whether some such circumstance is an injustice is acceptable.  But when someone agrees with you that some circumstance is unjust, but then does nothing to oppose it, or even aids and abets such unjust circumstances, it can be quite discouraging.  It helps to know that MLK experienced that same frustration, and yet also overcame it (in part by writing this outstanding letter).


Here is part four of the letter, again abridged to keep focus:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. . . .  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. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just 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 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. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. . . .

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. . . . By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels 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 being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the 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. 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.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. 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.

. . . .

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

This is the real heart of MLK’s defense of his actions.  Here, MLK sets forth a philosophical justification for violating human law and the social customs of his day.  In short, he was a reformer. 

What is the justification of this behavior?  MLK says that his justification comes from God, who has instituted a higher law than the human law.  Thus, a law that violates this higher law is not a law in the fullest sense, and may be violated. 

This raises an interesting question: if morality comes solely from society, and not “from above”, then does that make MLK immoral for violating the human law applicable in his day?  What justification would he otherwise have for violating human laws? 

On the other hand, if one believes that there is a higher, transcendent source of law, to which all human laws owe homage, then one has ample justification for holding human law to that standard.  When the Nazi asks, “who are you to tell me my actions were immoral or illegal?  Are you German?”, the answer may be, “you violated a higher, universal standard that applies to you whether you acknowledge it or not.” 

The second-to-last paragraph quoted above is my favorite.  One who violates a law “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. . . is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”  That is how you make a statement on social policy. 

In that vein, it is particularly troubling when someone violates a law from a position of privilege, immune to “a willingness to accept the penalty.”  We see this when judges “twist” the law to fit their own ends, contrary to the intent and meaning of the words they interpret.  This is a form of flouting the law, but it comes from behind the protection of the robe, with immunity from any penalty.  In other words, it’s the most cowardly form of civil disobedience.

This letter is pretty long, so I’m abridging it a bit, skipping the specifics about particular people and incidents in Birmingham (I prefer to discuss the theoretical points)…

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

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. . . .  [W]hen you are 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 impatience.

Interesting observation, that those in power to oppress others rarely voluntarily give up that power.  That is the danger of putting too much power into the hands of a few.  They are quick to assure the rest of us that they have our good in mind, and they might mean it, but the power often proves too great a temptation (see Supreme Court, USA).  And it is rare that one turns back and releases the power to allow the disenfranchised to seek justice or govern themselves.  (I cannot help but recall The Lord of the Rings here on the tempting power-grab issue.)

Here’s the second installment of some of my installments from the Letter.  If you haven’t read the previous post to this one, I would recommend that you do so before reading this sequel.  Martin Luther King, Jr. continues:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation. . . .  

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” . . . .

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

This is the best description of which I am aware of the proper way to conduct a civil disobedience campaign.  The question “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” is certainly a way to weed out the half-hearted.  The four steps, “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action”, demonstrate a remarkable patience.  I have seen my share of demonstrations downtown, whether for immigration, labor demonstrations, or election measures, and have not observed such patience.  What I usually see is an expression of anger.  Even when a group has every right to a righteous anger in the name of justice, it is much more convincing, at least to me, when one is willing to “accept blows without retaliating” instead of threatening or even harming the target audience.  The Southern California grocery store lockout comes to mind, where union members stood outside of grocery stores and in some cases harassed and harmed patrons of the grocery stores that were locking out the workers because of a labor dispute. 

One other note, I appreciate MLK’s recognition of “the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood”, in an attempt to live in “dialogue” instead of “monologue.”  This is, in my opinion, an indictment of the “politically correct.”  Is not political correctness a “monologue”, a hatred of the “nonviolent gadflies” whose message may challenge and even correct us from social delusions?  Only an arrogant society, one that considers itself infallible, refuses to allow the dissenter to spread his message in an attempt to bring about social change. 

An excellent example of the harms of political correctness are documented in this book by an anonymous psychiatrist working in the counseling center of a major university.  The book, titled Unprotected, presents the major health issues affecting college students because their own mental health professionals are too politically correct to tell them the truths about disease, and even about their own bodies.  The “monologue” in our society is literally spreading disease. 

Being a “nonviolent gadfly” can certainly be uncomfortable and no fun, and I certainly have been anything but a “nonviolent gadfly” in my large, secular, politically correct law firm.  I am not encouraging being a jerk, nor a brainless, tactless upstart, but rather being an intelligent, calm, burr-in-the-saddle, so to speak.  Someone that will ask the well-placed question to stir up consciences and, as MLK says, “create a tension in the mind”.  It’s scary.  But needed.

As I indicated in my last post, I want to go through the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and make some observations.  I’ll quote the meat of the Letter, but omit extraneous material for brevity: 

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. I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”  I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. . . .  I am here because I have organizational ties here.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 of 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 an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never 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.You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

This introduction sets up MLK’s defense of his activities to white Christian leaders in the South, and his appeal to their consciences.  It also briefly defends his involvement in the affairs of the Birmingham citizens when he himself is not from Birmingham.

I suppose he often heard arguments similar to this: “what do you care what goes on in Birmingham?  You don’t live here, and no one is doing anything to harm you.”  Sounds a lot like a bumper sticker I once saw: “Don’t like abortion?  Don’t have one.”  Obviously, these conservative arguments in favor of the status quo miss the point.  Not that it is exclusively a conservative argument; I have also been asked with respect to homosexual marriage, “what do you care if gays get married?” 

MLK’s response: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Interesting that MLK says that everyone has not only a right to consider the behavior of others, but the duty to do so.  Thus, people who believe abortion terminates a human being’s life would have a duty to fight this injustice.  Opponents of homosexual marriage would have a duty to preserve the moral well-being of society by seeking to prevent the government’s sanctioning and licensing of (not merely permitting) immoral behavior.  People in America would have a duty to seek an end to government-imposed starvation in third world countries.  Not to say that it is necessarily the government’s job to prevent all instances of injustice; but private citizens must use their resources for the common good, which often means doing things that the government cannot. 

MLK’s Approach Compared to Abortion Protests

Interestingly, this supposed meddling in the affairs of others is at the heart of non-violent protest.  And if you think non-violent protest has fallen out of use, that probably results from a lack of media coverage of abortion protests.  As Jon Shields notes in his recent book: “some 45 percent of respondents in the Citizens Participation Survey who reported participating in a national protest did so because of abortion. What is more, nearly three quarters of all abortion-issue protesters are pro-life, an unsurprising fact given that the pro-life movement is challenging rather than defending the current policy regime. Meanwhile, all other social issues, including pornography, gay rights, school prayer, and sex education, account for only 3 percent of all national protest activity.”

It would appear that the heirs of MLK’s attitude toward fighting injustice are not modern liberals, but pro-life activists.  As noted by Prof. Shields:

As a movement that wants to preserve the status quo, [the pro-choice view] simply has nothing to gain from engaging its opponents, especially on college campuses where the pro-choice view is a default progressive position for many students. But the pro-choice movement does have something to lose if bested in public debate. Moreover, pro-choice advocates know very well that even the minds of activists in their ranks can be changed. Prominent examples include abortion providers and the cofounder of NARAL Pro-Choice America, not to mention many less prominent rank-and-file activists.

Thus, proponents of the pro-choice view act exactly like the white Christians addressed by MLK in his letter by seeking to stymie debate and keep the “outsiders” from stirring up the conscience of the community.  Proponents of the pro-life view, on the other hand, are seeking the attention and public debate that MLK sought and achieved.  So with respect to abortion, in a way, the liberals have become the conservatives and the conservatives have become the liberals.

Today was the birthdate of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I celebrate MLK day every year by renewing my appreciation for The Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

Two years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an attorney at the large law firm at which I worked in downtown Los Angeles.  He mentioned in passing his belief that Martin Luther King, Jr. is more important to our nation’s history than George Washington.  I replied that I was a big fan of Dr. King myself, especially because of his work as a Baptist pastor.  When I mentioned that, the attorney with whom I was speaking said, “Oh yeah, I had forgotten about that…” 

In a fit of bravado, I subsequently sent the following email to the seven attorneys (including the aforementioned attorney) comprising my department:

Read the rest of this entry »

I ran across a quote from John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States.  In interpreting Dante’s Inferno, John F. Kennedy is said to have stated: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

The neutrality angle apparently is taken from the following language in the Inferno:

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I [Dante] set out, I wept.

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voice shrill and faints, and beating hands –

All went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

And I – my head oppressed by horror – said:
“Master [Virgil], what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”

And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them –
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”

And I: “What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?”
He answered: “I shall tell you in few words.

Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.

The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”

And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on – so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.

Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people – I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.

After I had identified a few,
I saw and recognized the shade of him
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

At once I understood with certaintly:
this company contrained the cowardly,
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretched ones, who never were alive,
went naked and were stung again, again
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.

The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.

I wonder what JFK would think about the current typical American discourse on abortion (assuming his use of the Dante line wasn’t just pretty language reserved for useful instances).  For instance, “I oppose abortion, but I believe that ultimately the government should leave that decision to a woman and her conscience” (Rudy Giuliani), and “I think that whether you are looking at [the issue of what point a baby get human rights] from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade” (Obama).  On that issue at least, neutrality seems to be a pretty popular position, even if it is an incoherent one.