Throughout all of American history, many individuals have stood up for the justice that they believed they deserved. We have seen these individuals pay the price of jail for standing up in what they deem to be a righteous and just cause. Which brings us to the question, what is a just and unjust cause, or even more imperative, what is a just and unjust law? In Martin Luther’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, he talks about how the African-American people were being treated unfairly by an unjust law. Luther also feels that because of this unjust law he has the right to act upon it with civil disobedience. Luther is not the only person who feels that sometimes there must be a call for civil disobedience. One of the most influential figures in American thought and literature also saw a need for civil disobedience. Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay entitled “Civil Disobedience” in which he explained his reasons for not paying taxes to a government fighting an unjust war. Although Thoreau and Luther both agree on the act of civil disobedience, there is one author, Louis Waldman, who wrote an article entitled “Civil Rights-Yes: Civil Disobedience-No”. In his article Waldman is writing a reply to Luther on why he thinks he is wrong for the way he justifies his civil disobedience. I believe that Luther and Thoreau are right in the ways in which they rebel against a government that is upholding unjust laws and making unjust decision. Although Waldman makes good points against Luther, I believe most of his points are false. Throughout Luther’s letter I believe that he makes many brilliant points in which to defend his case of civil disobedience.
Luther defines civil disobedience to be, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Luther is not only defining what civil disobedience is but he is also showing that he was willing to commit to all of the following. When Luther went out and led a precession against the laws of segregation, he knew that what he was doing was illegal, and he was ready to receive any actions that might come upon him.
In today’s day and age I believe that there are many laws that are unjust. Just to name one, I believe that the right given to women to murder their child, otherwise known as abortion, is an unjust law. I believe that an act of civil disobedience against this law would probably be a very good idea. If I was to gather a number of people and march down Michigan Avenue in Chicago and protest abortion this would probably cause a great deal of commotion and definitely make several news channels. Although some people could get arrested and thrown in jail, the cause and benefits of such a protest would far outweigh the consequences and repercussions. This is very similar to what Martin Luther King did when he got arrested. Luther, along with many other protesters paraded through the city of Birmingham and protested the laws of segregation which plagued a nationality of people. Although Henry David Thoreau did not go out and publicly protest his beliefs, he also was arrested for a cause that he thought needed to be brought to attention. In Thoreau’s essay entitled “Civil Disobedience”, he explains his reason for not paying taxes to a government that was involved in an unjust war with Mexico. Waldman would disagree with both Thoreau and Luther in their opinion to openly violate the law. In Waldman’s essay he says, “Apparently Dr. King thinks that in violating laws “openly,” he and his followers are more virtuous than those who violate laws secretly. As a matter of fact, the reverse is true. The open violation of law is an open invitation to other to join in such violation.”(Theory and Practice, 109). Although Waldman does make viable points, I am not sure he fully understands the reason for the things King is doing. King in his letter talks about the reasons for why it had to come down to civil disobedience, Waldman must not have paid to close of attention to these reasons.
Before Luther goes into great detail about his act of civil disobedience he first explains his reasoning for doing so. Luther speaks of just and unjust laws, more specifically the unjustness of segregation in Birmingham. “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.’”(Luther, paragraph 15) I believe that Luther is smart by taking both sides of the argument. He says that we do have a legal and moral responsibility to all just laws; this shows that he does believe in obeying the law, but only in certain circumstances must the law be broken.
I think that God would have taken the side of Luther in taking a stand against segregation. In the Bible it says that we must obey the laws of the land, unless those laws go against the laws that God has set before us. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 2:27). As you can see by this Bible verse God created one man and he goes onto say, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good.” (Genesis 2:31) God made one man that was created in his image, so there is no reason why men of different color should be treated differently. So when you look at the laws of segregation, these laws would be treating men differently. Therefore by God’s standards this law would not have to be obeyed.
Luther also in his letter uses the Bible to justify what he is doing. He talks about how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar. He also goes onto to talk about how many early Christians were persecuted and even killed for standing up against certain unjust Roman laws. I believe these points to be some of Luther’s best points in his letter to the clergymen. As a Christian, these points hit home the most for me because it shows how people from the Bible, as well as early Christians also civilly disobeyed the governments that were set before them. It really makes me think if I would be able to stand up for what I believe in as a Christian and willingly accept the consequences. Thoreau on the other hand did not use the Bible as much to defend many of his points. Thoreau did write though on what Christ said to the Herodians, “Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and God those things which are God’s”. (Theory and Practice, 110).
In Louis Waldman’s essay he knocks on Luther and how he talks about Hitler’s Germany. Waldman brings up the point that Luther says everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal. He goes on to say, “…he(Luther) is making an invidious comparison between Hitler’s Germany and the United States. I deeply resent it. Most American in their right senses should resent it as well.”(Theory and practice, 110-111) At first look this seems to be a very good argument against Luther, but then if you look at Luther’s text in its entirety, Luther is actually making a very good point. “We should never forget that everything Adolf hitler did in Germany was “legal”…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.” (Luther, paragraph 21). When you look at this quote, I interpreted Luther to be saying that everything Hitler did was legal, because Hitler made all of the things he did legal. Therefore, Luther is saying that he would have stood up for what he believed in and helped aid the Jews. This was just another good example of an excellent reason for civil disobedience.
Another thing in which Waldman digs into Luther about is the Brown vs. Board of Education. Waldman says, “…Brown vs. Board of Education…was not achieved by civil disobedience, sit-ins, lie-ins, or marches. On the contrary, it was achieved by reason and the appeal to traditional constitutional principles.” (Theory and Practice, 107). This I believe is one good point in which Waldman has Luther on, for it is true that the court case of Brown vs. Board of Education was not settled by civil disobedience, but by peaceful appeals. Luther could have kept appealing the matter to stop segregation in Birmingham, but instead he went on and made a big commotion that got himself thrown into jail.
Overall, I believe that Luther is right in leading a march in Birmingham. A law that is set up that says two groups of people must be segregated is an unjust law which makes it no law at all. I think that the Lord has commanded us to stand up for the laws that go against what he has commanded us. And since the Lord has commanded us to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and “Treat others as you would also like to be treated”, this gives Luther the right to go out and protest against the wrongs of the country. Luther did go out and protest what he thought was wrong with this world and he was successful in many of his protests. This is why he was known and still is known as one of the greatest civil right leaders of all time. Luther fought for the civil rights of his people even if that meant acts of civil disobedience. He fought so hard that he was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis Tennessee, a death I am sure Martin Luther was willing to give for the greater cause of equal rights for all of mankind.