Professors Paint Martin Luther King Jr. as Bold, Sometimes Reluctant, Law-Breaker

Gil Siegel

Professors Tomiko Brown-Nagin (left) and Risa Goluboff discussed Martin Luther King Jr.'s complicated relationship with the law at a forum Thursday at the University Chapel..

January 30, 2012

Known for being an advocate of civil disobedience, Martin Luther King Jr. had a complicated relationship with the law, including a sometimes conflicting desire to honor it despite injustice, according to two University of Virginia law and history professors who spoke Thursday night at the University Chapel.

At the event, "What We Can Learn About the Law from the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Risa Goluboff chose key events in the Civil Rights Movement, primarily ones in Alabama, to illustrate King's approach to the law.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott that started in 1955 is widely considered the beginning of the movement, in part because of compelling figures such as Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man, and King, a young and charismatic orator, Brown-Nagin said.

As part of the boycott, she said, King invoked the power of the Constitution, along with its preamble and the Declaration of Independence, to spark public sentiment. He also cited the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

King's references to the law lent gravitas to his speeches on the bus boycott, said Brown-Nagin, author of the 2011 book "Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement."

"Amid injustice, law can be inspirational," she said.

The boycott, which lasted more than a year, was successful in changing the policies of public transit. But many in the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by King, felt the movement wasn't advancing fast enough.
"Birmingham was chosen because it seemed likely to be explosive," said Goluboff, author of "The Lost Promise of Civil Rights."

In addition to boycotts of businesses there, nonviolent protestors staged sit-ins at white lunch counters and "kneel-ins" at white churches. Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor countered with force, as expected, and the battered protesters began to fill the jails.

Goluboff said the increased focus on civil disobedience created tension between King and his fellow protesters on one side, and the lawyers who supported the movement's efforts on the other.

"The goal is to highlight the injustice of the law by violating the law, by going to jail and publicizing those events," Goluboff said. "The lawyers' goal is to keep [protesters] out of jail."

Police jailed King in Birmingham for violating an injunction to stop the movement's non-permitted protests. During his incarceration, he wrote one of his most persuasive letters arguing why his civil disobedience differed from the actions of whites who refused to honor the law, Goluboff said.

King's lawyers later unsuccessfully challenged the conviction before the U.S. Supreme Court. Goluboff said his defense lamented that the protesters never filed for a permit, despite the unlikelihood that one would have been issued.
"It's not clear if King's goals could have been achieved had it not been for this arrest," Goluboff said.

Brown-Nagin said King wasn't without reservation when it came to civil disobedience, however. He nixed a plan to re-attempt the unsuccessful "Bloody Sunday" voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery that saw 600 protesters repelled with tear gas.

King was "tortured about law-breaking," Brown-Nagin said. "The movement had not received authority from the federal courts to engage in this march."

King had never defied a federal court order, she said, and he worried about staying in the good graces of the Justice Department, which urged against the march.

She said that while there were legitimate fears that inactivity might derail the movement, "Bloody Sunday" in itself was significant enough to force passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which she argued was the most coveted laurel of the Civil Rights Movement, having followed on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Office of Lifetime Learning in the Office of Engagement sponsored the lecture, with support from the Law School. The talk was among more than 30 King-related programs scheduled over a two-week span in January. As one of the final events, civil rights leader Julian Bond, a professor at UVA's Corcoran Department of History, will speak Tuesday alongside Michael Cody '61, whose law firm represented King during the Memphis sanitation workers march. (More)

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