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01630--In what circumstances was it justifiable to break laws during the Civil Rights Movement?


A society is as good as its laws. Good laws make a good society, and vice versa. Laws have been in existence from the very beginning of civilizations. Fairness and justice are supposed to be the pillars of all legal systems. Ironically, laws have also been made and executed to oppress and exploit the people who are supposed to benefit from them. The Civil Rights Movement was a reaction to the misuse of a legal system, and it emphasized the need for breaking laws that were bad. Martin Luther King Jr. and the thousands who followed him disobeyed the then law publically and with utmost awareness and willingness to accept the legal consequences.  It is fully justifiable to break laws in a society which is run on a corrupt legal system, and Civil Rights Movement is a classic example for this violation for the greater good.

Dr. King believed that all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the very soul and damages the whole personality. All should be equal before the eyes of all, which is the “Golden Rule”. God has created everyone equal, thus Dr. King thought he had the moral rights to go against the law of the land, and he had valid logical arguments for doing so. Examples for breaking the law during the Civil Rights Movement centered mainly around the large processions led by Dr. King. His protests were modeled after Mahatma Gandhi’s protests against the British empire. All of Gandhi’s protests were non-violent and successful. Dr. King thought that the very need of a movement was a proof for the existence of a ‘bad’ law.  Dr. King discussed elaborately the difference between a good and a bad law. He thought that this distinction can be made by using one’s intuition. To see the fault of a particular law, one has to use one’s intuition in the context of day-to-day life. Dr. King explained his stand point by bringing in the example from the then society. The African-Americans at that time were barred from voting on laws that affected them. As a result, there came a situation where the majority exploited the minority in all aspects of life. Dr. King proposed the three-part procedure for breaking a bad law down. First, a law can be violated if an individual’s conscience tells him that it is unjust. Second, the way the law is violated should be with an attitude of openness, love, and willingness to take the responsibility of the act and accept the penalty for it. One should not indulge in the act of disobeying the law instead the act should be carried out with a sense of responsibility towards humanity. Third, a bad law is to be violated so that the conscience of the community is aroused against injustice.   This was the philosophical and moral justification for the 'disobedience' deliberately carried out by Dr.King and his followers.

Rosa Parks' unwillingness to give up her seat to a white passenger had led to her arrest.  This incident was a historic violation of the law for the greater purpose.  This incident is now known not as a crime but as a great gesture upholding fairness and equality.  Her very refusal to comply to the demand of the bus driver was because she thought she was being treated unfairly. She later stated, “I wanted this particular driver to know that we were being treated unfairly as individuals and as people.”  She was willing to accept the penalty for her action. It was not out of hard feelings but out of awareness that she did it. This incident resulted in arousing the conscience of the community she lived in, and recorded in history as one of the greatest individual efforts protesting injustice. What Rosa Parks did was justifiable as it was the result of her willingness to stand for a cause despite the consequences. She was fully aware that her action could, in the course of time, be a symbol of protest that could inspire many 'wronged' in the future. When she said, “I felt I had to stay where I was,” she was referring to her conscience which was convinced of her right as a human being. The stand point she took was not on the spur of a moment but was out of a sense of duty for the community she belonged to. The circumstance in which Rosa Parks disobeyed the law makes her action justifiable.

The act of breaking the law during the Civil Rights Movement was rather symbolic. These acts committed collectively were not aimed at breaking certain laws, but were the demonstrations of criticism levelled against a system that did not have the best of interests of the people at its heart. The symbolic nature of these violations gives it a universal importance. The Montgomery boycott started by Rosa Parks, and the marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. were not just the violations of the law but were the repercussions of a bad legal system that had been in existence.


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