[PAST EVENT] Martin Luther King on Civil Disobedience: Discussion with W&M Law School Dean Davison M. Douglas

January 16, 2014
1pm - 1:50pm
Law School, Room 127
613 S Henry St
Williamsburg, VA 23185Map this location
Dean Douglas suggests that those who plan to attend the program read this excerpt of King's letter ahead of time:

Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 [in Brown v. Board of Education] outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. 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."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. 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. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality . Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court [in Brown v. Board of Education] for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong. ...

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. 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.

Davison M. Douglas joined the William & Mary law faculty in 1990 and has held a number of leadership positions at the Law School. From 1997 until 2004 he was Director of William & Mary's nationally acclaimed Institute of Bill of Rights Law. In 2005, he founded the Law School's Election Law Program which he directed until 2008. Douglas graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University, and received from Yale University a law degree, a Ph.D. in history, and a master's degree in religion. Prior to coming to William & Mary, Douglas served as a law clerk for Judge Walter R. Mansfield of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and practiced employment law as a partner in a Raleigh, North Carolina, law firm. One of the nation's leading constitutional historians, Douglas is the author or editor of seven books, including Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954 (2005), Redefining Equality (1998), and Reading, Writing & Race: The Desegregation of the Charlotte Schools (1995). He has also published articles in several of the nation's leading law reviews, including those at Michigan, Northwestern, Texas, UCLA, and William & Mary. Douglas has lectured on American constitutional law and history at universities throughout the United States, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. In 2007, he served as the Goldberg Distinguished Visiting Professor at Cornell Law School. He has also served as a visiting professor at the law schools of the University of Iowa, Emory University, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Auckland.

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