BUSINESS LAW 101 / Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

By Albert L. Kelley, Esq.

Monday, January 17 was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  For many it is just a day off of work.  For others it is recognition for years of efforts on the civil rights front.  The holiday was a bipartisan effort having been first proposed in Congress by U.S. Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts).  After failing to pass, it was later reintroduced by Democrat Katie Hall and signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan.    

Unfortunately, today many people have either forgotten the lessons Dr. King taught or are bending his words to fit a viewpoint that was never his. Dr. King’s words often appear to hold a different meaning when taken out of the context they were used.  A great example of this is his legendary “Letter From Birmingham Jail”.  In the letter he states: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”.  This phrase has been used by some as authorization to commit violent protests. But they have taken the phrase out of context.  The full passage is this: One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. 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.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

Dr. King wrote these words in the margin of a newspaper while sitting in a Birmingham jail.  He had been arrested for violating a city ordinance banning all “anti-segregation protests activity”.  He had not committed any violence- he had merely led a march.  He wrote, “You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which 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. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Dr. King condemned violence.  In a speech he stated, “Let me say as I’ve always said and I will always continue to say that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. . . I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. . . So I will continue to condemn riots and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way”.  Dr. King respected the courts and the laws.  His actions were designed to use the legal system the way it was intended. By committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, he would focus attention on the issues and bring them to the forefront of the national conversation.  He would bring the laws before the Court where judges could determine if the laws were just or unjust. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so 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 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.”  

But he knew the laws could only do so much.  In one of his last speeches, he said: “although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless. Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also. And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and it does change the habits of men. And when you begin to change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes will be changed; pretty soon the hearts will be changed.” 

Al Kelley has worked as an attorney in Monroe County for the last 32 years. He is the author of five law books available through Absolutely Amazing E-Books and the host of “Basics Of The Law”, a legal YouTube channel. He serves as the Vice Chair of the 16th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Panel.  He also previously taught business law, personnel law, and labor law at St. Leo University. This article is offered as a public service and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about legal issues, you should confer with a licensed Florida attorney.

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