Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

Start Free Trial

In King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, how does he define "extremist," "just" laws, and "unjust" laws?

Quick answer:

Martin Luther King gladly accepts the label of "extremist" because he says that Jesus was an extremist for love, and he believes that one cannot be too extreme in this direction. King defines a just law as one that is rooted in natural morality and an unjust law as a man-made law which has no such origin.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King uses a perfectly reasonable, even obvious, definition of extremist when he accepts the label. An extremist is one who is extreme in thoughts and actions and can be extremely good or extremely bad. Jesus was extreme in his demand that his followers should love their enemies. Saint Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were all extremists in admirable ways. Dr. King aspires to be an extremist in the service of love, goodness, and truth, as Jesus Christ was, and says:

Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

In his definition of just and unjust laws, King appeals to the concept of natural law, writing:

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.

You will have your own views on which, if any laws are unjust. It you are considering the question in countries around the world, laws imposing the death penalty for homosexuality or blasphemy are obvious candidates. Within the United States, you could look at laws that vary from state to state, since it would be difficult to argue that such legislation is based on natural law. There are various reasons why people obey laws which they think are unjust, including social pressure and fear of punishment.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial