Fact Check

Is MLK's 'Disobey Unjust Laws' Quote Real?

The genuine quote often appears in memes on social media.

Published Jan 16, 2023

Police mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr. following his arrest for protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. Colorized for the Gado Modern Color series. (Photo by Gado/Getty Images) (Gado/Getty Images)
Image Via Gado/Getty Images
Claim:
Martin Luther King Jr. once said or wrote, "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

One quote that commonly appears in memes with attribution to Martin Luther King Jr. reads, "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

In truth, yes, this is a real quote from King.

Here are three of the many memes we found being posted on Facebook on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday in January 2023:

As can be seen in the last meme above, the quote is sometimes lengthened to show more of King's thoughts. It read, "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.'"

This quote has been authenticated and referenced by a number of publishers and institutions, including The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, and others.

The quote from King was part of his letter known as "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which he wrote on April 16, 1963.

Brittanica.com told the story of King ending up in jail:

In Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, King's campaign to end segregation at lunch counters and in hiring practices drew nationwide attention when police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, including hundreds of schoolchildren. His supporters did not, however, include all the Black clergy of Birmingham, and he was strongly opposed by some of the white clergy who had issued a statement urging African Americans not to support the demonstrations. From the Birmingham jail, King wrote a letter of great eloquence in which he spelled out his philosophy of nonviolence.

Within the letter, King addressed it to, "My Dear Fellow Clergymen." The relevant part of the letter that contained the quote is below. Readers can also listen to King read these five paragraphs from an audio recording that was posted to YouTube, beginning at the 16:31 mark:

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 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well 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. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

The Africa Center at the University of Pennsylvania published the letter in full on its website, as did a number of other websites.

Note: The caption for King's mugshot from Gado and Getty Images said that the image had been "digitally colorized using a modern process" and that "colors may not be period-accurate."

Sources

Hevesi, Dennis. "Abraham Woods, Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies at 80." The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/us/13woods.html.

"Is King's Dream Reality? In Birmingham, Yes and No." The Associated Press, 24 Aug. 2013, https://apnews.com/article/9e9e58d64c9240c1950d1abccc92e5df.

King Jr., Martin Luther. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." University of Pennsylvania, The Africa Center, Apr. 1963, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

---. Letter from Birmingham Jail. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Apr. 1963, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw_0.pdf.

Martin Luther King, Jr. - The Letter from the Birmingham Jail | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr/The-letter-from-the-Birmingham-jail.

Jordan Liles is a Snopes reporter with expertise in investigating misinformation, inauthentic social media activity, and scams.

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