J-Term Course Explores Martin Luther King Jr. and the Law

January 13, 2011

A team of University of Virginia law professors is teaching a new January Term course that examines how the law affected Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson

"What Lawyers Can Learn from the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King: Looking Back, Looking Forward" begins Monday on the 25th anniversary of the first federal observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"There are a lot of things that lawyers can learn about the law by looking at and exploring the life of MLK," said professor Alex Johnson, who organized the course with Dean Paul G. Mahoney. "There are some jurisprudential issues that really come to the forefront. To what extent must you obey an unjust law? Who decides what is an unjust law? What is the role of social protest in the law?"

Professors Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Kim Forde-Mazrui and Risa Goluboff will join Johnson in teaching the weeklong course, which is part of the University community's larger Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.

The course begins with a lecture by leading King scholar Clayborne Carson, titled "Celebrating the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." The lecture, at 4 p.m. Monday in the School of Law's Caplin Pavilion, is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Law.

Carson is a professor of history at Stanford University and founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, and his lecture will provide the framework for the course, Johnson said.

The course examines four iconic events — the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott King's incarceration in Birmingham, Ala.,the Selma, Ala., march and King's Chicago campaign — to understand how the law was both a boon and a hindrance to King's social movement and how these events still resonate.

The course also will examine whether the law leads or follows societal norms and mores. "Law is not divorced from social movements and society. It's a reflection of the society," Johnson said.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Tomiko Brown-Nagin

King's activism confronted the lack of legal protections for minorities and the poor. "If you think a law is unjust and you don't think the legal system is being responsive, what tools do you have?" Brown-Nagin said. "How, as a lawyer, would you speak to people who have that point of view? That's a conversation I want to have with students."

Goluboff said she will discuss what civil disobedience means. Is it a form of respect for the rule of law or merely lawbreaking? Is accepting punishment key to civil disobedience?

"Civil disobedience envisions a performative role for law," Goluboff said. "The real audience is not the judge; the real audience is the public."

Risa Goluboff

King employed different strategies to advance the Civil Rights Movement, Goluboff said. One strategy looked past the courts and said, "I have engaged in civil disobedience for a reason. I accept my punishment," she said.

King knew how to work within the legal system and was very strategic about the use of lawyers, Johnson said.

"He had an incredible amount of faith in the Constitution and in the ability of governments and people to make change," Goluboff said.

The course will also explore how King's methods resonate today in the gay rights movement and other social activism.

Kim Forde-Mazrui
Kim Forde-Mazrui

Forde-Mazrui said he hopes to challenge law students to think about how they can best approach contemporary problems, such as educational discrimination, the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and discrimination against homosexuals. Lawyers and activists must be flexible in their approaches to bringing about social change, he said.

Extra-legal approaches, such as protests, boycotts and civil disobedience, may sometimes yield better results than attacking discrimination in the courts, Forde-Mazrui said.

"There are lessons in looking back at the Civil Rights Movement," he said. "Often court successes didn't have much real-world effect until there was real political acceptance of the change."

Because the observance of King's birthday falls during the J-Term, the course may become a staple in the Law School. "Our hope is that we'll be doing this for the foreseeable future," Johnson said.

The Law School is offering 19 courses during the January Term, a short-course term separate from the fall and spring semesters.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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