On Tuesday, January 19th, students and staff had the privilege of hearing Dean Davison Douglas, Dean of the Law School, speak on the legal implications of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dean Douglas has an extensive background in Constitutional History and Civil Rights Law, especially concerning race in America. Knowing of Dean Douglas’ expertise in this area, I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend the event and learn about the legal implications of King’s nonviolent forms of protest.
Dean Douglas set the scene by explaining that in the spring of 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was the site of the Birmingham Campaign, one of the most influential movements of the Civil Rights Era. In continuation of the peaceful marches and sit-ins that were occurring, King sought a parade permit to lawfully march down the city streets. Birmingham enjoined the demonstration by issuing an injunction. King was warned that if he disobeyed the court order, he would forfeit his right to dispute the merits of the injunction. Still, King and a formidable crowd of protestors walked along the sidewalks. They did not wave signs, and they did not chant. They simply walked, and when police arrived to stop the protest, the crowds were viciously attacked with fire hoses and police dogs. King was arrested at two o’clock on that Good Friday, as a Christ-like figure being punished for taking a stand.
While in his dark, desolate cell, King found out about a letter that eight white clergymen wrote attacking him. In response, King penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dean Douglas explained that the theme of the piece was “Why we can’t wait,” wherein King described that for the oppressed African American population, “wait” really meant “never.” African Americans would never get the rights they deserved if they continued to passively wait for them. For this reason, King had developed his practices of nonviolent civil disobedience.
As Dean Douglas conveyed, Dr. King believed that there were specific criteria to be adhered to for civil disobedience to be effective. First, one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, so as to make a bold statement. Second, a person must break that law lovingly. Following Gandhi’s nonviolent system of civil disobedience, King believed the cause was best furthered when the protestors showed respect to their oppressors. Third, when one breaks an unjust law, they must be willing to accept the consequences. This aspect shows dignity, and it binds together the three criteria into one powerful message.
Dean Douglas translated King’s philosophy of civil disobedience to modern day examples. He discussed the armed ranchers in Oregon, who are still in the midst of a standoff over rights to grazing lands. He also discussed the actions of Edward Snowden, the government intelligence employee who disclosed classified government information to the public. In both instances, Dean Douglas explained that the examples fell short of King’s standard by not satisfying all three requirements. The armed ranchers have not been practicing loving peaceful protests, and Snowden has fled the country and refused to accept the consequences of his actions.
Dr. King’s appeal of the injunction went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was decided against him in a 5-4 decision. Even so, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his courageous efforts of civil disobedience ultimately led to victory for many of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Dean Douglas’s talk was a compelling tribute to Dr. King and his fight for just laws through peaceful protest.
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