Using examples from Martin Luther King's Civil Rights Movement, discuss how the law can influence a social movement?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The law can influence a social movement in the way it can galvanize people into action.  Dr. King was masterful at being able demonstrate such an idea.  Dr. King's fundamental appeal in the Civil Rights Movement was to suggest that the laws of segregation were wrong and flawed.  Dr. King used the law to demonstrate how the issue of segregation was a violation of human rights.  Dr. King was able to use the unjust nature of segregation laws to awaken the conscience of the nation.  He made the issue of racial rights into one of human rights by showing that the laws themselves were 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 St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," quoting St. Augustine serves as a reminder as to why Dr. King believed that the law can influence a social movement.

For Dr. King, the law was a tool to create social change. In advocating the need to disobey segregation laws, Dr. King was able to use the law to influence a social movement:

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

The laws of segregation were used as a means of social change. Dr. King was able to argue laws that segregated African- Americans were the embodiment of injustice and unfairness.  Additionally, Dr. King asserted that the laws themselves should be challenged.  These laws were vital in exerting an influence on social change.

In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King showed how to use a law in influencing a social movement. Dr. King was able to raise attention to it as embodying the need for individuals to see what can be as opposed to what is. Dr. King was able to use the law as a means of transformation. Segregation laws were vital ingredients in the formula for the Civil Rights Movement, of which Dr. King played a vital role.

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