What is the difference between just and unjust laws in the Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King?

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In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail ," Martin Luther King draws freely on the time-honored natural law tradition in making his distinction between just and unjust laws. For centuries, Christian natural law thinkers had stated that there was a firm, unchanging moral law, ultimately derived from eternal law...

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In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King draws freely on the time-honored natural law tradition in making his distinction between just and unjust laws. For centuries, Christian natural law thinkers had stated that there was a firm, unchanging moral law, ultimately derived from eternal law (God's law), to which human laws have to conform. If such laws do not conform to the moral law, then they cannot reasonably be called law at all and should therefore not be obeyed.

But how does one determine whether or not a specific human law actually conforms to eternal law? King answers this question by arguing that an unjust law degrades human personality, whereas a just law uplifts it. That being so, the Jim Crow laws that maintain segregation are unjust because they degrade the souls of those subject to official discrimination while giving the white race a false sense of superiority.

King goes on to argue that unjust laws are those used by the powerful majority to compel minority groups to obey but are not binding on themselves. In other words, an unjust law doesn't impose the same obligations on everyone equally. Just laws, on the other hand, display fundamental legal equality in that they apply to everyone—black and white, rich and poor, majority and minority—under all circumstances.

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In response to the eight white clergy men who denounced and termed as willful breaking of the law the non-violent demonstration in Alabama, Dr. King elucidates the difference between just and unjust laws.

He defines a just law as a man made law which is in agreement with the law of God also referred to as the moral law. On the other hand, an unjust law is a man made law that deviates from what the law of God advocates for. He further expounds using St. Aquinas’s terms that “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”

By way of example, he characterizes unjust laws as any laws that degrade human personality, legalize difference and are imposed on a minority who were excluded in the formulation of the very laws. Contrary to the above, he exemplifies just laws as those that make sameness legal.

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The previous answer does a very good job of quoting Dr. King to show how he differentiated between just and unjust laws.  I would add one more quote from the letter to this.  King quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as saying that

An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

From this quote and those of the previous answer, we can see that King believed in a law higher than the laws of man.  To him, a law was just if it was in accordance with higher law and if it helped to make people better.  If it did not meet these criteria, it was an unjust law.

This definition of just and unjust shows us one of the difficulties with the idea of civil disobedience of unjust laws.  Most Americans today would agree that the laws King opposed were unjust and should have been disobeyed.  However, there is no objective way to determine what laws are just and unjust.  To take just two examples from today, a person could argue that laws allowing abortion are unjust and should be disobeyed while, on the other side of the spectrum, they could argue that laws against gay marriage are unjust.  There is no way to objectively say whether the right to an abortion or the right to gay marriage “uplifts human personality” or “is rooted in eternal law.”  This means that the idea of civil disobedience is somewhat dangerous as it gives permission to anyone to disobey the laws of their country simply because their moral values are not in accordance with those laws.

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