Characteristics of Just and Unjust Laws

About halfway through this speech, Dr. King states that an unjust law, which we have a moral duty to disobey, “is a code that the majority inflicts on the minority that is not binding on itself.” MLK describes this as “difference made legal.” Let us take this idea and apply it to the situation of the paperless people in this country. Doing so will help us understand exactly what it is we should be working for.

Is the illegality of undocumented people a result of a code that the majority inflicts upon them that is not binding on itself? Yes. In essence the majority says, “You have to get permission to be in this country; I don’t. I can reside and work and exercise politically as a matter of natural right; you can’t.” I believe Dr. King would say that this legal distinction, based upon the “immutable characteristic, arbitrary from a moral point of view,” (Rawls words), constitutes a prime example of an unjust law. Just as under Jim Crow law, some were legally discriminated against by others because of the difference in the color of skin between the two groups, the whole idea of an “illegal immigrant” is one based on the idea of legal discrimination based on the difference in the place of birth between the two groups. So I think our goal should be to abolish the semi-slave status of “illegal immigrant” by recognizing that all people have equal claim to live where they want.

King goes on to say “An unjust law is a code which the majority inflicts upon the minority, which that minority had no part in enacting or creating, because that minority had no right to vote in many instances, to that the legislative bodies that made these laws were not democratically elected.” Because democracy is a system of government that derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, the Constitution doesn’t limit voting rights only to citizens. In fact, there is basically no Constitutional distinction between the rights of citizens and non-citizens. It could be argued (though I will leave it for another day) that because those excluded by immigration laws were denied the right to vote as to what the immigration laws would be, these laws are unjust and non-democratic. Given MLK’s standards for just and unjust laws, the goal we should have for this movement is to actualize the right of free migration.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–>

 

Nonviolence

Having identified immigration restrictions based on place of birth as unjust, Dr. King, I believe, would advocate our challenging this unjust system of segregation. But, “the means must be as pure as the end.” Dr. King talked about three competing approaches to social change. The first approach is resignation. Almost all people use this method to deal with injustice. They learn to adjust to injustice. The second approach, to “[rise] up against the oppressor with corroding hatred and physical violence,” is advocated by some today. As those who want to use nonviolence to bring about a free and equal society, we must not associate ourselves with either of these two methods. Just as Dr. King rejected the methods of Malcolm X, we must be very selective about how we will approach immigration reform. This is important because nonviolence is based in part on the idea that “the end is preexistent in the means.” Thus violence cannot (not just should not, but cannot) create a positive change. This is also true of “internal violence of spirit,” of hatred, and dehumanization. When we vilify those who oppose us or who debase and dehumanize undocumented people, we dehumanize them. We can never see them as our enemy, but as our future ally. We must realize that Jim Gilchrist, Lou Dobbs, and Tom Tancredo are children of God with infinite worth. “The image of God is never totally done,” and “even the worst segregationist can become an integrationist,” are powerful concepts. The civil rights movement sought not to advance the interests of one group over another, but knew that because their cause was just, it would benefit all people, even those who opposed them. This will require that we nurture and develop our capacity to love all humankind. Even more important than our unwillingness to tolerate an unjust system is our unwillingness to let that system cause us to hate. We must never call another human “enemy.”

 

Not Simply Disobedience; Civil Disobedience

It is interesting to read how strongly King supports the idea of civil disobedience. He does not advocate defying law. He even says “I submit that the individual who disobeys the law, whose conscience tells him it is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty by staying in jail until that law is altered, is expressing at the moment the very highest respect for law.” Disobeying a specific law because of its immorality, but submitting to the general rule of law shows a very high level of respect for law. It is within that context of respect for the general rule of law, but recognition that some laws are unjust, that I encourage civil disobedience. We must break unjust laws openly and publicly, submit to the authorities, and trust that good people will not tolerate a system that allows good people to sit in jail because they refuse to “adjust to injustice.”

This means that we will be disruptive. Dr. King was constantly called an “outside agitator” for his unrelenting use of nonviolent civil disobedience. In this speech, he defends himself by saying that true peace was not disturbed, but only the “negative peace” of injustice. So it will be with us. We will be called outside agitators, we will be called disruptive. The analogy that came to mind for me, though, came from the “don’t rock the boat” idea. If a person is trapped under a small rowboat, s/he of necessity has to disrupt the apparent tranquility of the boat in order to stop from being drowned. But to suppose that because you are sitting in a stationary boat, peace must exist, is to neglect to see that your boat is potentially the instrument of someone’s death. As the drowning person pulls him/herself up over the edge of the boat, the rowboat dips toward the water on that side, but if the person sitting in the boat will be patient, the boat will regain its calm, but this time it will actually have peace, not just the appearance of it.

 

Question

My biggest question after reading this speech is this: how will the fact that restricted immigration is federal law make this civil disobedience campaign more difficult than the civil disobedience campaign for integration? Could they have succeeded in the 50s and 60s if they were still living under the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson?

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>


<!–[endif]–>

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> The system of restricted migration, like segregation, uses tokenism to claim that justice is being realized, but like Dr. King, I recognize it as a mirage of justice, not justice itself.

website metrics

Advertisements