Martin Luther King Jr. is a symbol of peace, justice and nonviolence, but he is often misquoted, misunderstood and invoked for nefarious purposes that have nothing to do with his legacy.
While many like to speak of King’s “dream” and his commitment to peace, part of remembering him means understanding his belief that society has a responsibility to disobey unjust laws. And right now in America, we have become the land of unjust laws and policies — from voter suppression to bans on teaching race and racism.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King said we have a duty to disobey unjust laws. “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” he wrote. “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.’”
King was unwavering in advocating for civil disobedience to break systems of oppression — disobeying unjust laws in the open, and with love.
What is an unjust law? According to King, it’s one that degrades rather than uplifts humanity. Jim Crow segregation statutes were a prime example of unjust laws because “segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality,” as King noted. “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
A law is also unjust if a numerical majority or a power majority imposes it on a minority yet the majority does not have to follow the law. King used specific examples to make his point.
Internationally, he pointed to Germany, writing: “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal.’ ... It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
And, of course, sitting in a Birmingham jail cell, he spoke of how Alabama’s segregation laws that prevented Black citizens from voting were put in place by an undemocratically elected state Legislature (a power majority). He pointed to the fact that not a single Black person was registered to vote even in some majority-Black counties.
While he did not advocate lawbreaking, or as he said “evading or defying the law” like the “rabid segregationist,” King was unwavering in advocating for civil disobedience to break systems of oppression — disobeying unjust laws in the open, and with love. After all, he believed that those who passively accepted evil without protesting it are perpetuating it and cooperating with it.
“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,” King insisted.
This is a side of him that has been glossed over or even conveniently left out of the conversation. Meanwhile, there are people today who support unjust laws yet invoke King’s name when it is convenient. Supporting policies that directly oppose King’s dream for America, they cherry-pick his words without context to justify unjust laws.
Nothing about King’s actions or rhetoric — no matter how some may try to twist them — indicates that he would be satisfied with where America is on civil rights today.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., claim to support voting rights and to celebrate King’s vision and honor his legacy of freedom, justice and equality, yet they refuse to change the Senate filibuster rule that would allow for crucial voting rights legislation to pass and preserve multiracial democracy. Sinema and Manchin exemplify the white moderate King described, that “great stumbling block” against Black freedom “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” and believes now is not a convenient time for freedom.
In a 1963 interview, King cited the filibuster as stalling the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.”
That same year at the March on Washington, King said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
GOP lawmakers who justified, supported or enabled the Jan. 6 insurrection and appealed to white nationalists — such as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — have quoted and twisted King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to attack critical race theory and deny the existence of systemic racism.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, name-dropped King last month in announcing an anti-critical race theory bill called the Stop Woke Act. The legislation would allow private parties, such as students, parents, employees and businesses, to sue schools and workplaces that teach critical race theory. “You think about what MLK stood for,” DeSantis said. “He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called King “a transformational leader” and “a true American hero” who recognized “great injustice in this world” and took “the necessary steps to right that wrong.” Yet Kemp sat under a painting of a slave plantation as he signed a voter suppression law making it a crime to give food and water to people waiting in line to vote.
In Texas — where the Legislature removed King from the state curriculum and ended the requirement to teach that the Ku Klux Klan was morally wrong — Sen. Ted Cruz praised King’s fight against racial inequality and injustice. This is the same person who has thrown his unwavering support behind Donald Trump, a president who denigrated Black women, whose administration operated migrant detention centers that one member of Congress compared to concentration camps and who advocated for measures that contribute to voter suppression.
Now is the time to remember that King, though nonviolent, was not a pushover. People in the U.S. are witnessing how the future of the country’s multiracial democracy is at stake because of unjust laws that aim to further ostracize marginalized voices. And we shouldn’t just stand aside and watch it happen.
We can use the power of our vote and our voices to hold elected officials accountable. Nothing about King’s actions or rhetoric — no matter how some may try to twist them — indicates that he would be satisfied with where America is on civil rights today.