The Rev. Dr. King on Civil Disobedience

By January 18, 2010

Today, as the nation and all of us in the civil liberties community celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to bring some attention to King’s view on civil disobedience. Many people are confused about what constitutes civil disobedience, believing that everything from sit-ins to riots are part of that nebulous concept. FIRE has even encountered claims from students that since they were engaging in "civil disobedience," they could not or should not have been arrested. King, of course, knew better. In his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King explains the real meaning and often profound significance of civil disobedience:

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.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

As King points out, civil disobedience can lead to imprisonment (as in his own example) or even death (as, he points out, it did for ancient Christians or modern Germans and Hungarians). Yet therein lies its power. King had faith that his civil disobedience, while risky, would open the eyes of society to repression and injustice. And he was rightby powerfully demonstrating his principles in the marketplace of ideas that is a free society, his ideas won out. 

FIRE works to ensure that this very same mechanism for answering today’s most profound questions remains alive and well on our campuses, without the need for the sort of civil disobedience to which Dr. King was forced to turn. We’re proud that our work helps keep alive this vital part of King’s legacy on America’s college campuses.