Jurisprudential outlook on the Letter from Birmingham Jail

Jurisprudential outlook on the Letter from Birmingham Jail

This Article is submitted by –

  • Neeti Gupta, a final year law student at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

The African American community was promised desegregation during the Civil Rights Movement but they faced numerous obstacles on their path towards a true equality. Inequalities of segregation and racial prejudice were fought against by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in South America. King was in fact arrested for engaging in violent public demonstrations in Birmingham. While he was in jail, eight white clergymen made a criticising public statement, the response to which King penned down on the very newspaper he read it in. This letter is what came to be known as the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In this letter, King discredits the clergymen’s claims, clears his name by justifying his actions and tries to garner support for the Civil Rights Movement.

This paper analyses King’s demands and the actions he took to fulfill them through the jurisprudential lens of well renowned theorists. While the main focus is to analyse this situation of 1963 through the idea propounded by Critical Legal Studies, Aquinas’s perspective of natural law has also been accommodated.

The paper is be divided into 4 parts. Part I is an insight into the contents of the Letter and background it was written in. Part II is an introduction to Critical Legal Studies and its application to the situation described in the letter. Part III delves into the expanse of natural law through the lens of Aquinas and its reflection in the letter. Part IV of the paper is the writer’s opinion on the letter analysed against the backdrop of the theories that are introduced in the paper, namely CLS and Aquinas’s theory.

Part- I

Aforementioned is the background in which Martin Luther King Junior penned down the infamous Letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter is famously considered to be one of the most important written documents of the civil rights era in the United States of America. In April 1963, Birmingham had a series of municipal segregation ordinances. In a bid to disqualify these ordinances started the Birmingham campaign, under the umbrella of which leaders from all around South America, including Martin Luther King Junior commenced a series of sit-ins and pickets. Apprehensive of the rising racial tensions, Alabama’s leading white religious leaders released a public statement disputing the method of protests and the unfortunate timings of the same. The timing was questioned because the protests were organized soon after the city rejected, through electoral process, the leadership of its vociferously segregationist Public Safety Commissioner. The government retaliated to theses non-violent demonstrations by prohibiting public civil rights demonstrations in the city. On April 12, when the activists violated a court injunction for the same, they were arrested and thrown into Birmingham Jail.[i]

During his imprisonment days (eight), he happened upon the white ministers’ statement and immediately started writing response ideas which were then carried back to movement headquarters by King’s lawyers. Reverend Wyatt Walker compiled and edited the odds and ends of the letter and it was finalised on April 16, 1963.[ii]

Two key themes run through the letter: justification and reprimand. Starting with justifying his presence in Birmingham, he justifies the requirement of the civil disobedience movement, his direct action, his timing, his breaking of the law and his alleged extremism. This is followed by the expression of his disappointment in white moderates and white churches because of the little or no help they provided to the blacks on their quest for equality and basic human rights.

Part- II

The ways of speaking about the law split up the world into categories that filter our experience- sorting out the harms we must accept as the hand of fate, or as our own fault, from the outrageous injustices we may resist as wrongfully forced upon us.

Law is not only a discourse for the affluent in society. History is proof that the content of law has helped the oppressed or groups demanding change in the society but it has focused a lot on fulfilling the wishes of the politically, economically and socially dominant. According to Critical Legal theorists, legal discourse reflects interest of the powerful and dominant people in society because these people have the maximum yielding power. They can wield it themselves or pay lawyers, lobbyists etc to do it on their behalf. That is how having power in a society helps achieve a position of dominance. Legal discourse very subtly rationalizes and justifies the existing social order as required and fair. The law assumes that a complaint, if filed is a momentary disturbance in an overall sound world. R. Gorgon wrote, “Thus legal discourses– in conjunction with dozens of other nonlegal discourses– routinely help to create and maintain the ordinary iniquities of everyday social life: the coercions, dominations, and dependencies of daily relations in the marketplace, the workplace, and the family; the ordering of access to privilege, authority, wealth, and power bu hierarchies of class, race, gender, and merit.” [iii]

Law is entangled with social issues, and biases and is a tool used by the dominant class to legitimize injustices present it the society. Law naturally reflects the desires of the law makers who in 1963 were essentially white males. According to the theory propounded by CLS, law supports a power dynamic which favours the historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged. It authorizes oppression and formation of a hierarchy.[iv]

King’s  troubles mentioned in the Letter from Birmingham Jail are clearly reflective of the critical legal theorist’s ideologies. Racial segregation is the procedure of limiting the freedom of a certain group of people based on their race, and confining them to separate residential areas, schools, restrooms, eateries etc.[v]  It is used as way of showing dominance or superiority in society, dominance based on colour, race, political background and economic affluency. In 1963, Birmingham had certain municipal ordinances which manifested segregation, in particular racial segregation. As theorized in critical legal studies, the law developed to suit the needs or fulfil the wishes of the powerful in the society. Back then, soon after slavery was abolished, the most powerful were the white men in society and they used this power to make laws that would favour them and help maintain their social status. In turn they oppressed the blacks and used legal discourse to help them do so. It makes one wonder, is the law actually helping everybody in society, promoting equality and serving justice as it claims to do. Critical legal theorists believe that legal discourse essentially paralyses the possibility for social change. To bring about any change in society, what is required is the approval of the powerful white men in society. This meant that equality, a right vested in everybody, inherent in their being, had to be granted to the blacks on the discretion of the white people.  

R. Gordon believes that law works to legitimize the existing order in society. The worst case is when both, the dominant class and the dominated class feel that the current order of the society is the best achievable and most satisfactory one. The dominated classes cannot envisage life to be any different or better than it is in that moment.[vi] This exact theory is reflected in King’s letter. He writes that the Negro community is divided into two groups.
First is the group that has lost its self-respect and is complacent as a result of oppression. They have adjusted to the idea of segregation and in fact there is a small part of this group that is indifferent towards the issue of segregation faced by the masses, reason being that they have either benefitted from segregation or they have a certain level of economic security.
Second, is the group that has become so bitter and is brimming on intolerance that it has come dangerously close to taking up violent means to achieve ends of justice.[vii]

Back in 1963, segregation was the existing order in society and the municipal ordinances were used to sanction these differences. The first group, the ones who have accepted their fate are reflective of an effective kind of domination. They are satisfied and cannot imagine a better life. Even if they can, they are unable to strive for it in a setting where the law is made to please the powerful dominating whites.

In his letter, King discusses three modes of legal injustice. First, he states, “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.” He believes that end of such a law is not the good of the community, instead it is some private good. Second, he writes, “a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote” is unjust, because if the minority was not part of the law making, they should not be subjected to the law application either. The law is thus made by an illegitimate authority. Back then, voting for black people was not free of impediments. Third, “a law just on its face and unjust in its application.” is unjust. This again follows the theory of CLS. Any law is reflective of social biases, especially if it is inflicted by the majority on the minority, or if the minority has no say in the law making.[viii]

Haines in his article on CLS demonstrated the process of legitimization of injustices through the use of legal discourse. It is essentially done by manipulating the doctrine of law. In 1963, a law was in place that promised liberation and desegregation, but it was almost impossible to achieve in the social reality. This failure is more often than not legitimized by looking at it from the perpetrator’s perspective, instead of the victims. Reasons focusing on fault and causation were given to justify segregation and intentional discrimination which makes it tough to prosecute perpetrators.[ix]

For that matter, when courts passed the injunction prohibiting public civil rights demonstrations in the city, it was looked upon from the perspective of the perpetrators. King’s march was considered to hamper public order and thus allegedly, in favour of good of the community, it was banned. The victim’s perspective of trying to get justice by removal of segregation ordinances was ignored. This is a clear example of law working in the interest of the powerful and dominant in society.

Part- III

St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary, the Treatise of Law, theorized that law is nothing but an obligation. Obligation arises from our natural sense of justice and morality, and so should the law. He distinguished between the kinds of law. The eternal law gives an idea of what is right and what is wrong and plays a part in god’s plan for the world. The natural law is our contribution in the eternal law.[x] He believes that the rational nature of human beings is what determines moral law and thus moral law that is derived from human behaviour is natural law.[xi]

In the opinion of Aquinas, in the natural law theory, the notion of law and the notion of morality were not clearly demarcated. There are many versions of natural law theory, but the one thing that is common between all is that they agree that there are some laws which rely on logical relationships with moral standards to derive their authority. The other kind of laws depend on some pre-existing human convention for their authority. There is no norm that makes moral standards a criterion for legal validity, but nonetheless there are some laws gain their authority from the moral content. This crossover of law and morality is referred to as the Overlap Thesis. Two essentially different ideas come together to give authority to certain laws.[xii] All kinds of natural law theory evolve or pertain to the overlap thesis. Natural law governs the behaviour of humans who possess free will and reasonable standards. Aquinas believed that the basic of natural law is to do good and avoid evil, something that is objective and usually derived from rational nature of human beings.[xiii]

King quotes Aquinas and his ideas in his letter quite a few times. Their ideologies meet at the point of deriving law from morals. Like Aquinas, he believed that any law that is not born from natural law or eternal law, is unjust. A man-made law that meets moral standards is just whereas if that law does not square with morals, it is unjust. The law of segregation takes away the self-respect and the inherent right to equality of the blacks. It is clearly not in harmony with human morals and thus can be understood to violate the theory of natural law.

Aquinas was a preacher of obedience in most situations. The only situation in which he allows disobedience is if it is disobedience of unjust laws. A true example of this is King disobeying the laws of Jim Crow. According to Aquinas, only human laws can be unjust in nature. He wrote, “a human law diverging in any way from the natural law will be a perversion of law and no longer a law.” Unjust laws are not in the interest of the common good.[xiv]

His theory reflects that he understood that not every individual can make laws removed from biases and prejudices. Thus, he suggested that law should be made either by “the whole people”, or “persons acting in the name of the whole people” since such laws would be made for the betterment of the community. These laws must be based on good reason and must not violate natural or moral law. This is the reason why legal discourse that perpetrates segregation would be ill placed. Segregation laws are not made by authorities representing the whole people because it was next to impossible for the blacks to vote. In the letter, King also questions the authority of the legislature of Alabama since in his opinion it was not elected democratically. He laments about the conniving methods used to stop black people from becoming registered voters and thus voting. There exist some countries where majority population is of Negroes and they are still not allowed to which directly questions the law set up in such states.[xv]

Additionally, in the eyes of Aquinas disobedience should not cause scandal or civil unrest because while he preaches disobedience of unjust laws, he also emphasizes the importance of rightly ordered peace.[xvi] If following the law or ordinance means going against the natural law or the human good, disobedience is permitted but limited by peacekeeping in the society.[xvii]

Aquinas theory reflects that an unjust law is not just no law, it is violence. Segregation laws are morally unjust and so can be thought of as no law at all.[xviii] Thus, the court injunction passed to put an end to King’s civil disobedience movement is not law at all from the perspective of natural law.

Human laws can be unjust in two different ways.[xix] First, if the law is contrary to momentary good of the society. This can happen if the end sought to be achieved is problematic or is not in favour of good of the society. For example, the municipal ordinances of Birmingham were in place to maintain segregation which is not in favour of the common or moral good. The law will be unjust if the law passed is not made with the proper or legitimate authority. For instance, laws passed by people representing only the white masses of the society. A law is also unjust if it is violative of the formal principle of justice. According to this principle, each and every person should get what they deserve. For example, self-respect, basic human rights like voting, liberty etc were denied to Negroes through the formal system of laws.

Second, a law is necessarily unjust if it violates the veracity of our relationship with god, who according to Aquinas is the final good we need to achieve. This is when a law dictates outrightly evil deeds. For instance, the law pertaining to slavery is purely evil and should not be followed in any case. Here we can also bring in the instance of Nazi laws. All torture emphasized on the Jewish community was legitimized through law but the deed is purely evil and must be disobeyed at all costs.

King agrees that an unjust law is no law at all. And any law that degrades human personality is definitely no law at all and must be disobeyed. King also emphasizes that both, an unjust law with a just application and a just law with an unjust application, are unjust laws at the end of the day.

Part- IV

Martin Luther King Jr. always worked passionately for civil rights and members of his race. He accepted the leadership of the “Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times” in the United States. He appeared each time there was injustice, protest, and action. He initiated massive protests which caught all the attention of the world. In fact, he was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Obedience of all laws in a democracy is the duty of all citizens but if the democracy angle is removed, the duty ceases to exist. In fact, in such a democracy-less society, as Dr. King says, it becomes necessary to disobey unjust laws.

“The views of the authors are personal


[i] Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1389.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Robert Gordon, ‘Law and Ideology’ http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Law-and-Ideology.pdf

[iv] LII Staff. “Critical Legal Theory.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, 2 Sept. 2018, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/critical_legal_theory.

[v] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Racial Segregation.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 26 Apr. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/racial-segregation.

[vi] Robert Gordon, ‘Law and Ideology’ http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Law-and-Ideology.pdf

[vii] Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. [1963]

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Andrew W. Haines, The Critical Legal Studies Movement and Racism: Useful Analytics and Guides for Social Action or an Irrelevant Modern Legal Scepticism and Solipsism, William Mitchell Law Review, Volume 13, Issue 4, Article 3, https://open.mitchellhamline.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2501&context=wmlr

[x] Study.com, Study.com, <study.com/academy/lesson/st-thomas-aquinas-treatise-on-law.html> 

[xi] Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/natlaw/.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Thomas. On Law, Morality, and Politics. Ed. William P. Baumgarth. Trans. Richard J. Regan. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett, 2002.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi]  “Civil Disobedience.” Civil Disobedience | Http://Undergroundthomist.com  

[xvii] Thomas. On Law, Morality, and Politics. Ed. William P. Baumgarth. Trans. Richard J. Regan. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett, 2002.

[xviii] “Civil Disobedience.” Civil Disobedience | Http://Undergroundthomist.com

[xix] Ibid.

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