What Martin Luther King Jr. Said About Civil Disobedience

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and philosopher John Rawls offer different justifications of civil disobedience. According to both natural law theory and contemporary consent theory, a legitimate act of civil disobedience may be required by the law. This paper will explain the conditions under which disobedience is justified, according to Rawls. Additionally, an explanation of the legitimate means of disobedience according to Martin Luther King Jr. will be discussed. Finally, thoughts about civil disobedience and violence will be addressed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. states that there are four basic steps in a nonviolent campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action” (King). The question then is, is not negotiation better than direct action, sit-ins, marches, etc.? Negotiation is the purpose of direct action. The purpose of nonviolent direct action is to create tension and crisis so that issues must be confronted. This type of action forces the issue to the forefront so that it can no longer be ignored. The tension that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about was nonviolent tension. This type of tension is constructive in its effect and necessary for growth.

The creation of a crisis that can no longer be ignored in order to reach negotiation is the purpose of nonviolent direct action. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that not a single stride towards civil rights has been made without “determined legal and nonviolent pressure” (King). History has proven that individuals that are members of privileged groups in society rarely want to give up their privileges voluntarily. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed to the observation of Reinhold Niebuhr that groups are more immoral than individuals.

Freedom is never freely given by the oppressor. The oppressed must demand their freedom. “Good timing” is not an issue when it comes to nonviolent protests. Neither is a “wait and see” attitude. In the experience of Martin Luther King, Jr., time had been on the side of the segregationists, not the Negroes. “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that the African American people had waited, at the time of the letter, over three-hundred and fifty years for their constitutional and God-given rights. There comes a point when people are no longer able to tolerate injustice.

There are two types of laws, just and unjust. Saint Augustine said “An unjust law is no law at all.” There is a certain set of criteria for determining whether a law is just or unjust. A just law is a law that is in harmony with God’s law. Contrarily, an unjust law is one that is not harmonious with God’s law or natural law. If a law uplifts a person’s personality, that law is just. If the law degrades the person and his or her personality, that law is unjust.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that segregation is unjust because it “distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King). The person who participates in the act of segregation has a false sense of superiority over the oppressed. As a result, the oppressed person develops a sense of inferiority. Therefore, segregation is unjust, immoral, reprehensible, and a sin against God and humanity. The famous existential theologian, Paul Tillich defined sin as separation from God. Segregation is separation, therefore, segregation is sin. Sin is morally wrong and must not be condoned. Therefore, people should protest against segregation.

John Rawls discusses the grounds for civil disobedience in a constitutional democracy. He describes civil disobedience as a political action taken to get the attention of the majority to an issue that dissenters believe is unjust (Rawls). Rawls says that the two chief virtues are efficiency and justice. He outlines a social contract doctrine where social institutions should not be established where they do not exist, and to enforce social institution where they are already in place.

If citizens accept the benefits of a just and efficient social institution, they must do their share to uphold it. In other words, once the benefits are accepted, citizens have the obligation and natural duty to make sure the social institution upholds the principles of justice and efficiency. The conception, therefore, is based on a theory of political obligation. Rawls argues that the society must conform to norms that equal freemen would agree to in a hypothetical situation. The same norms and principles decide the obligations and duties that these freemen have to society.

Under this social contract, individuals have the same rights as everyone else in society, and economic and social disparities should be ordered to the advantage of society as a whole. The acceptance of the social contract then demands obedience to social institutions. In a social contract, citizens are sometimes forced to obey unjust laws. There is no assurance that even in a constitutional democracy that all legislation will be just. In agreeing to a constitutional democracy, one subjects himself or herself to a majority rule. Therefore, once one has subjected himself to the constitution and plans to accept its benefits, one has the duty to comply with unjust laws. As long as the injustice is not overly burdensome, one is bound by the social arrangement to obey the unjust laws of the majority.

However, the submission to an unjust law does not mean that the citizen should allow his conscience to be overruled. Civil disobedience is justified if the laws enacted by the majority deny the liberty of others. Civil disobedience, as defined by John Rawls, is a “public, nonviolent and conscientious act contrary to law” (Rawls). He goes on to say that the purpose of civil disobedience is to bring about change in the laws of the government.

Rawls also defines civil disobedience as a political act. It is a political act because it is meant to justify what is right for society. Civil disobedience is not concerned with a specific target group; rather it is concerned with the constitutional concept of justice. An act of civil disobedience is meant to garner the attention of the majority for the purpose of reminding it that intentional, unjust legislation is not part of the original social contract. The protesters’ message to the majority is to reconsider the fact that the social contract is not being honored. Dissenters are protesting because basic civil liberties are being violated.

According to Rawls, an act of civil disobedience is necessary when someone is exposed to deliberate injustice over an extended period where the injustice is in violation of political citizenship, and when protesting would be appropriate given similar circumstances for another individual or situation. Civil disobedience usually stirs up the anger of the majority, and may be especially problematic if the timing is inappropriate.

Upon examining the two notions of civil disobedience; the notion of civil disobedience under Martin Luther King Jr., and under John Rawls, Martin Luther King Jr. appears to be a radical extremist, although history would not paint him in this matter. John Rawls’ definition of civil disobedience is so passive that one wonders if he secretly opposes the act. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights for Negroes in the 1960s, in contrast to Rawls who did not have a specific target group in mind with his “social contract” theory.

It is fascinating to note that neither condoned violence. Nonviolent protests are not against the law; however, civil disobedience is illegal. People that participate in civil disobedience, as Rawls pointed out, already know that they are subject to arrest. Unless a nonviolent protest gets out of control, authorities usually leave protesters alone. Martin Luther King Jr. considered civil disobedience as a much more proactive measure than John Rawls. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for the equality of Negroes in the 1960s. He was opposed by a white Christian pastors who kept telling him to wait and the wheels of justice would turn in his favor. This was not to be the case, and history records the fact. During the 1960s violence broke out on behalf of the civil rights movement, and this was not initiated by Martin Luther King Jr. or his movement. He stood in radical opposition to violent protests.

Violence diminishes the legitimacy of a cause. Protesters appear as hoodlums and criminals when they resort to violence. Images of peaceful protesters being beaten by a white policeman permeate the psyche of America. These protesters accepted this punishment even as they were being bitten by vicious police dogs. Thanks to revealing video recordings, generations of Americans have been able to see history unfold before their eyes.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man ahead of his time. As a Christian pastor, he took a stand against the injustices against Negros in America during the 1960s. Blacks were “separate but equal,” which was a despicable concept in a democratic society. A society is truly not democratic if all of its citizens are not treated equally under the law. Laws that treat one group of individuals with preference to another group are intolerable. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this, and was determined to do something about it.

The injustice that King witnessed affected him on a personal level. His family experienced prejudice directly; therefore, King had a personal, vested interest in the various protests. The cause that King fought for was not only for himself and his family; however, it was for racial equality in general. King noted in his letter from the Birmingham jail that he was frustrated with the white Christian pastors. He could not understand why they were personally on his side, yet publically shied away from joining his cause. King pondered reasons for their actions, and came up with a couple of reasons; the Negros had grown accustomed to the status quo, and those who had made it into the middle class had forgotten their Negro roots.

King was also upset over the continuous plea from the whites that were sympathetic to his cause to “bide his time.” This was mentioned earlier, but bears reinforcement. Time was not on King’s side. In various portrayals of King, it is often noted that he had premonitions of imminent death. King knew that his time was short because his life had been threatened on several occasions. Civil disobedience, therefore, was a way to quickly propel the matter of civil rights to the forefront of the American collective consciousness.

It is only conjecturing that the civil disobedience employed by King was a result of his awareness of his mortality; however, the tone in his letter is obviously one of frustration and impatience. Clearly, King believed that the act of civil disobedience should be preceded by some form of injustice. A democratic society could not claim to be democratic if some of its citizens were being treated differently under the law. Segregation, according to King, was illegal and unjust. Since segregation was the law of the land, the Negros had to abide by this unjust law or face legal consequences. If a law is unjust, citizens, according to Martin Luther King Jr., are not obligated to obey it. At this point, citizens should exercise civil disobedience in order to gain the attention to draw the lawmakers into negotiation.

John Rawls said that sometimes civil disobedience caused the majority to accede to the wishes of the dissenters. The majority benefits the most from an unjust law. The minority rarely derives any benefits. That is why civil disobedience is necessary when justice is not being equally distributed. People enter into a social contract with the expectation that they will be treated like everyone else in society. That is part of the grand bargain of being a citizen of a democracy. Liberty and justice for all sounds like a cliché to the minorities in society who have been deprived of their civil rights.

Civil disobedience may sound like it has religious undertones, and some people who participate in sit-ins, marches, etc. are involved in such activities for religious reasons. However, as John Rawls pointed out, justice and efficiency does not revolve around or necessarily have anything to do with religious values. In contrast to this, however, biblical passages from the book of Exodus are often cited in equal rights protests. The passage where Moses frees the Jews from Egypt, and says to the Pharaoh, “let my people go” has been repeated ad nausea.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian pastor, but more than that, he was a civil rights leader. He was a historic figure who was to foreshadow the greatest of civil rights achievements ever imagined when Barack Obama, an African American, took the oath of office in 2008. However, civil rights are still an issue in American even with the first African American President, but not to the extent that Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries experienced.

John Rawls looked at civil disobedience differently than Martin Luther King Jr. He considered democracy as a social contract. He did not view people as “groups” who had individual identities. In fact, Rawls proposed that, in a democratic society, the people who originally signed on to the social contract were unaware of their differences socially, economically, or racially. He called this the “veil of innocence” (Rawls). These hypothetical, original people agreed on a way to govern that would treat everyone equally under the law. Since this contract involved a democracy, a constitution needed to be developed. This involved legislators who would be in charge of making the laws. Sometimes the laws were unjust. However, as part of the social contract, citizens also signed up for the benefits that the democracy provided to them. As a result, citizens were bound to obey unjust laws.

Rawls says that the only reason to exercise civil disobedience is if society, as a result of an unjust law, is being negatively impacted financially or socially. He does not propose that individual groups protest the unfairness of the law as applied to them because, under the veil of innocence, they are unaware of their differences. In a truly democratic society, everyone is equal, and this is a way to understand Rawls’ elusive, “veil of innocence.” Practically, human beings recognize that they are different from other people by virtue of looking into a mirror. What they see as a reflection is not what they see when they look at the world. The “veil of innocence” theory is problematic because it is too reminiscent of the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

Therefore, the justification for civil disobedience under Rawls’ theory is exceedingly rare. Only once a situation for the entire society reaches a critical mass should civil disobedience even be considered. The interruption of society as a whole is the only reason for civil disobedience, according to Rawls. He sets unusually high standards and discourages such an action. He states in a majority ruled country, uprisings by the minority only cause contention. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that civil disobedience was necessary if a particular group of people were being treated unfairly and unequally under the law. Rawls advocated a “wait and see” position to civil disobedience. Whereas Martin Luther King Jr. believed that time was the enemy of justice.

The two men’s positions are diametrically opposed. There’s no reconciliation between the two. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of action, and John Rawls was a philosopher. One man risked his life in the trenches for equal rights, while the other man wrote about it. Perhaps Rawls did not take into consideration the fact that the treatment of a group upset the entire balance of the free society. African Americans are well aware of their differences. Other citizens have not been shy to point these differences out. A society that Rawls describes is nonexistent. In fact, Rawls admits that his social contract theory is strictly based on a hypothetical understanding.

Rawls may be celebrated as a prolific writer, however; his theory on when to engage in civil disobedience has no grounding in reality. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., Rawls lived in the isolated academic environment. Rawls was part of the privileged majority. Rawls was speaking from a standpoint of the majority. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking from the standpoint of a black man fighting for racial equality in the 1960s. The cultural disconnect between the two men is reflected in their philosophy and outlook on life. Rawls, a member of the white, privileged majority was not in a hurry to effect change for the minority. Martin Luther King Jr., a man in fear of his life because he was fighting for civil rights, made the issue of civil disobedience more pressing.

The nonviolent protests that Martin Luther King Jr., advocated were falling on deaf ears, and the majority was vehemently opposed to accommodating Negros in restaurants, busses, bathrooms, or rooming houses. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. and his family had to sleep in his car while he was on the road fighting for civil rights. He and his family were personally the victims of racial prejudice, and that is why he was more apt to insight civil disobedience than John Rawls. This essay is not intended to disparage the work of John Rawls; however, it is necessary to point out that Rawls was a theorist. His ideas regarding civil disobedience were based on a hypothetical premise.

Finally, the question of whether or not civil disobedience must always be nonviolent must be addressed. The answer is a resounding yes. An action cannot be “civil” if it is violent because violence does not fall into the category of “civility.” The definition of “civil” precludes “civil disobedience” from being violent. Civil disobedience may be against the law, and appear lawless to the majority, but once violence erupts, it is no longer civil disobedience. What has resulted is an out of control mob. If a group of people are gathering together because they believe that their civil rights are being trampled on, and they proceed to engage in violence, they are infringing on the civil rights of other people. The dissenters have turned into criminals.

Violence only begets violence. If people are fighting on behalf of a cause, and that group of people make a poor impression on the majority, their cause will be mocked. The cause will have lost its momentum and the ability to draw people over to their side. Civil disobedience and civil rights are intrinsically intertwined. One cannot separate the two. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Rawls recognized this concept, although each man had a different point of view. The two men had a shared vision though, of a democratic society in which all people were treated equally under the law.

Neither man advocated violence, although John Rawls did mention that there were times when violence may erupt as a result of frustration on the part of the dissenters. Violence was not the goal of Rawls; it was a possible consequence of civil disobedience. Perhaps that is why Rawls was so timid in his endorsement of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King Jr., never advocated violence, but he foresaw bloodshed in the future. He was particularly concerned with the Muslim Brotherhood of Elijah Muhammad, a movement that would capture the attention of a young African American man who would come to be known to the world as Malcolm X.

This essay has examined the two different points of view of Martin Luther King Jr., and John Rawls concerning civil disobedience. Examples have been cited when civil disobedience is appropriate under the theories of both men. This essay has also pointed out that under no circumstances should civil disobedience turn into violence. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Rawls were two peaceful, loving men and would have never advocated for the trampling of the civil rights of others by resorting to violence.

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