Whenever begins a new campaign of direct action, Americans must revisit Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The “Letter” is especially relevant to moderates who support with the protesters’ cause but disagree with their methods. For as King writes, “law and order exist to establish justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” That and others of King’s insights apply to the arrests in Raleigh.
Firstly, it’s necessary to note that the moderates are good hearted people who are on the right side. Their views, however, rest on the assumption that all laws must always be obeyed. King writes: “[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust…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.” Importantly, the laws that the protesters risk arrest to protest (while not breaking), meet King’s definition of 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,” says King, anticipating the passage of Amendment One. More broadly, “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of having been denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.” The redistricting plan that passed in 2011 clearly denied many citizens input on the agenda that threatens to crush them.
Segregation was a far, far greater evil than the injustices against which North Carolinians protest today. No one disputes that. But King’s argument reveals deep truths about the tension that sometimes exists between justice and order. Those inclined to value the latter over the former should notice the parallels on Jones Street. Dr. King’s voice speaks to us still.