byFaith | Spring 2012
By Alan  Dowd

Even after the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, the words of the Declaration of Independence remained hollow, as segregation and institutionalized racism perpetuated a two-class system across the South. This paved the way for perhaps the most effective example of religiously-guided civil disobedience in American history: the civil rights movement.

In the letter he wrote while jailed in Birmingham, Rev. Martin Luther King offered a powerful defense of civil disobedience.

Writing to clergymen who opposed the peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham, King reminded them of the “conditions that brought about the demonstrations”: a governor full of “hatred”—recall that George Wallace howled, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”—a mayor and director of public safety who were committed segregationists, police who engaged in “ugly and inhumane treatment” of blacks, courts guilty of “grossly unjust treatment.” Simply put, King was fighting a regime that refused to observe federal laws, let alone the laws of conscience

“On the basis of these conditions,” King explained, “Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.”

So King chose the path of peaceful civil disobedience to end “the evil system of segregation,” arguing that someone who breaks an unjust law “is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Beyond the general guidance he offered on peaceful civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws, King also commented about something with a direct application to the controversy triggered by the HHS mandate, noting that if he lived in a country “where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s anti-religious laws.”

Sidebar piece to Following the Call of Conscience.