The Tradition Henry David
Martin Luther
King, Jr.
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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Organized Civil Disobedience
A photo montage of MLK behind jailbars with civil rights protesters in the background and a quote from MLK's Letter from the Birmingham Jail: My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. long description of image

Martin Luther King was the central leader in black resistance to segregation in the South. His more peaceful tactics won him the support of many whites who similarly objected to segregationist policies, but who were put off by more militant groups like the Nation of Islam headed by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

In 1963 King articulated a number of key points about the nature of non-violent action in his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." King had been arrested for leading a civil rights march through Birmingham, Alabama resulting in wide-spread violence and King's arrest. Several Birmingham clergymen made a public statement directed to Dr. King explaining their disapproval of the tactics King utilized in Birmingham while trying to secure civil rights for blacks.

King's response – originally written in the margins of newspapers, scraps of paper and later a legal pad – presented a lengthy analysis of the nature of non-violent political action. Like Thoreau, King insisted on the moral righteousness and even duty of citizens to disobey unjust laws. And, like Thoreau, he emphasized the importance of accepting the penalty, which many activists know can be extremely stressful personally.

One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all." ... One who breaks an unjust law must do it 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 willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

Though more moderate than other black leaders, King was nevertheless frustrated by repeated calls to avoid confrontation. He drew a careful distinction between confrontation and violence.

You may well ask, "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that 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.... I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive non-violent tension that is necessary for growth.

Dr. King's efforts culminated in a pair of great legislative victories when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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