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.
from 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.’”
was unwavering in advocating for civil disobedience to break systems
of oppression - disobeying unjust laws in the open, and with love.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., claim to support
voting rights and
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
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
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.”
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.”
lawmakers who justified, supported or enabled the Jan. 6 insurrection
and appealed to white nationalists - such as Sen.
of Missouri, House Minority Leader Kevin
of California and Sen.
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.
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.”
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
as he signed a voter suppression law making it a crime to give food
to people waiting in line to vote.
Texas - where the Legislature removed
from the state curriculum and ended the requirement to teach that the
Ku Klux Klan was morally wrong - Sen.
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
whose administration operated migrant detention centers that one
member of Congress compared to concentration
and who advocated for measures that contribute to voter
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.
commentary was originally published by NBCNews.com