You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in public schools, at first glance it may seem paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ”Letter from Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963
In some ways, it is ironic to use Dr. King as an example to promote nullification and interposition. Dr. King, in his letter makes one reference to nullification and interposition, and it is not a flattering one. Many state and local governments refused to comply with federal legislation and court decisions against segregation. It is the one unfortunate blight one can find in the nullification movement throughout American history.
One single abuse of the process of nullification, however, should not serve to invalidate the entire nullification movement, which has resisted the Alien and Sedition Acts, Fugitive Slave Acts (and even the Dred Scott decision itself), the misguided War on Drugs, and a host of other federal abuses. Especially when one considers that the legitimate applications of nullification are rooted in the same beliefs Dr. King expressed, and which have been expressed by people of many different religious beliefs, that an unjust law is no law at all.
Had Dr. King lived at the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Fugitive Slave Laws, I believe he most certainly would have found little to criticize about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions or the Personal Liberty Acts – the latter of which were an effective tool in the fight against slavery in the 19th Century.
The same Supreme Court that, in 1890, had declared “separate but equal” to be the way in Plessy vs. Ferguson, reversed precedent in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Many southern states, as well as some northern states, refused to follow that decision, effectively nullifying the Supreme Court’s decision. Birmingham was one of the most heavily segregated cities in that time.
Martin Luther King, Jr., while not the first, was one of the better known civil rights leaders to engage in civil disobedience against segregation ordinances through boycotts of buses, sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations, some without a permit. This approach, in theory and in practice, treated the unjust segregation ordinances as being null, void and of no force. Sound familiar? Yes, it is the stuff of which proper nullification is made, a fact which Dr. King himself might not have even actively considered, but a fact nonetheless.
Dr. King was not a governor, state legislator, county sheriff, mayor or town legislator. He was a minister, one who believed in self purification before direct action, one who quoted the likes of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, one who compared the civil rights struggle with the missions of both Old Testament prophets and New Testament Apostles. He was one who, if he were alive today, might be told to leave religion out of his rhetoric, even by people who agreed with him about the existence of injustice and the goal of desegregation.
Dr. King, as a religious nullifier, risked more than any elected state or local official by refusing to accept injustice. Elected officials who nullify are not the ones targeted for arrest, yet those who refuse to obey an unjust law individually or as part of a group face that risk daily. Despite this risk, long before there was a Tenth Amendment Center, to paraphrase Michael Boldin, he and other religious nullifiers before him didn’t need no stinkin’ permission to exercise their rights.
Through violent responses from his opponents, imprisonment, and even death, he earned the right to sing the spiritual of old, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”