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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the law

On January 17, 1991, I was invited to discuss the impact of Dr. King in honor of his birthday. I give speeches all the time, but I remember the irony of celebrating his nonviolent philosophy as America was watching the Gulf War unfold in the Middle East. I saw an opportunity to help people understand. Professor Randall Kennedy of the Howard Law School wrote the definitive article regarding the role of lawyers in Martin Luther King’s early days in the Yale Law Journal in 1986.

Historian Harry Kalven, Jr., in his landmark work, The Negro and the First Amendment, called the civil rights movement,”The first revolution in history conducted on the advice of legal counsel.” Dr. King, in his first speech as a civil rights leader, revealed a devotion to legal symbolism. At the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 5, 1955. Dr. King urged African Americans to boycott the City’s buses to protest racially- motivated mistreatment, invoicing legal and religious icons to inspire them. Dr. King told the crowd:

“We are not wrong! If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!” Dr. King often said, “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” And protest, he did. Segregation in the South was a way of life determined in large part by whites who virtually monopolized state power and used that power to subjugate African Americans. Terroristic violence and economic intimidation dissuaded many of African Americans from exercising their rights to political participation. As you all know, in December 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat and move to the rear “Black” section of the bus and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King used her standing in the community as an active civil rights leader as further evidence of the intolerable nature of the racist practices of exclusion and separation.

The boycott lasted from December 5, 1955, to December 21, 1956. The boycott fueled by Dr. King’s rhetoric and oratory was consistently effective. Dr. King was selected as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), to coordinate the protest and press for its continuation. The Montgomery Improvement Association created an alternative transportation network connected by about 80-90 dispatch and pick-up stations all over Montgomery. There were initially dependent on labor and cars donated on a part-time basis. But soon, the system took on an air of semi-permanence as the Montgomery Improvement Association hired drivers, bought vehicles, and forged a very efficient transportation service. The boycott movement emerged as a strikingly Democratic phenomenon. Dr. King had the rare ability to conceptualize and articulate a morally attractive vision of the protest.

There were two keys to this idea that caused Dr. King’s great success. First, he was attentive to the morality of the process. He argued, in a Gandhi-like fashion, that the means are the ends in the making. Dr. King always emphasized, in his speeches, interviews, and articles, the non-violent, embittered and redemptive character of the protest. Dr. King often said: “The Negro must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as a citizen, but he must not use inferior methods to gain it. He must never come to terms with falsehood, malice, hate or destruction.” The second aspect of Dr. King’s contribution was his ability to place the protest in a framework that enlarged its meaning, thereby transferring it from a local parochial struggle into a universal struggle. Although he was clear that the battle was about equality and freedom for African Americans, he also portrayed the protest as a more ambitious and inclusive undertaking.

The minutes of a meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association quote Dr. King as saying: “We are not struggling merely for the right of Negroes, we are determined to make America a better place for all people.”

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