When I was in high school, I took an elective class called “American Law” — basically a “civics” class with a different name. In mid January, my class’s teacher asked if any of us had plans for celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If I remember correctly, none of us did. For us, MLK Day was just an excuse to miss school for a day.
For my teacher, however, MLK Day was special. Every year he and his wife spent part of the holiday reading and discussing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — one of MLK’s most famous pieces of writing — with their church group. He also used this tradition as a teaching exercise for “American Law”: he had our class read a few excerpts of “Letter” then we had a class discussion about what we read.
As a bit of background, MLK wrote “Letter” while locked in Birmingham, Alabama’s city jail for his participation in the Birmingham campaign of nonviolent direct action to end the city’s policy of racial segregation. “Letter” was written as a response to eight Alabama clergymen who criticized the use of civil disobedience. MLK famously responded that “there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws.” Furthermore, he argued that individuals have both a right and a duty to oppose unjust laws with nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action.
I’d like to pass my teacher’s exercise on to Cop Block readers. Next Monday is MLK Day. If you have enough free time, I challenge you to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and to read it with a few questions in mind. Was MLK right — do people have the right to violate unjust laws? Are there any unjust laws in effect today? Are any of them serious enough to warrant using the sort of nonviolent civil disobedience practiced by MLK and the countless others who worked to end racial segregation?
Better yet, don’t just read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” alone. Share it with a family member, friend, neighbor, co-worker, etc. Instead of just thinking about these questions alone, open up a dialogue.
I designed e-book and pamphlet versions of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” based on this public domain version of the text. For directions on printing and assembling the pamphlet version, see this guide.
E-book: .pdf format
Pamphlet: .pdf format