Figure 81: Sample Excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Below is an excerpt that falls under the comment “Analysis.”

You may access the comment by clicking on the “Analysis (Glossary Comment)” and “Case Studies” categories or by typing “Task #4: Level” within the search box. King’s work is subject to U.S. copyright law and is displayed here for educational purposes.

You may print the excerpt for class discussions.

Figure 81: Sample Excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

       Now, what is the difference between the two?  How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?  1 A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  2An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.2 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. 

1Any law that uplifts human personality is just.2 Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.  2 All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.  2It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.2 Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. 

2 Hence segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.  2 Paul Tillich” has said that sin is separation. 2 Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?  1 Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; 2and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws.  2 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.  2 This is difference made legal.  1 By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. 1 This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation.  2A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.2 Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?  2 Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. 2 Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is 1 just on its face and 2 unjust in its application.  1 For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit.  1 Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade.  2 But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

Within the excerpt, we have placed a #1 by all sentences where King discusses “just laws.” We have placed a #2 by all sentences where King discusses “unjust laws.” The purpose of this exercise is to determine if King presents a balanced view of both types of laws within the context of his letter. King appears to present both sides of what an unjust law means and what a just law means. Although he presents two sides, is King’s presentation balanced? The keyword in King’s text is “squares.”

Group Activity

1) On a separate sheet of paper, draw two columns.

2) Write all of the sentences under #1 within the left-side column. Write all of the sentences under #2 within the right-side column.

3) Compare, evaluate, and discuss the sentences.

4) Develop a one-paragraph analysis on both “just laws” and “unjust laws.” Maintain the integrity of the letter by including only context-specific information.

Click here for “The Favors Step-by-Step Squaring Process.”

To view the full version of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” click here.

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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