“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” – this excerpt from Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail has long been important to me. The letter from Birmingham jail also triggers the warmest feelings I’ve ever had for the state of Alabama1.
Peaceful protest – breaking of law openly in public, not in hiding, with acceptance of the consequences – is in fact the highest level of respect of law. This principle clarified by Dr. King has been a guiding principle of my life of civil activism. More than anything else, this principle defining the relationship between law and principles shows why our nation recognizes Dr. King as a national hero today. This principle hammered home 174 years after our Constitution was ratified is actually the source of strength that keeps our principled society strong and alive today. Unfortunately I think that too many people have lost sight of this clarity between law and principle today.
Today I don’t feel any better about the lack of respect of law shown by Alabama voters in yesterday’s election. Almost half of the state’s voters took a deliberate action to cast their vote for a man that national standards said was unfair to serve in any such capacity. He was long notoriously illogical and unstable within the legal community, even back to reports of his days in law school, and had been removed from the bench twice by te state supreme court and banned from local shopping malls. These should all be clues to a normal rational person that this is not a the man who should represent the public in elected office. Voters interviewed by the media said that they chose “party over country” or their religious faith over their principles of human decency. Much has already been written in law text and current event coverage of the demonstrated willingness of people to abandon core values for the sake of political convenience and profit. The fact that Alabama’s residents did not run en masse from this unfit candidate and actually had to wait until an alleged pedophilia scandal broke to barely change their minds is a poor indication of the character and mental fitness of half of the residents in this state. Some incorrectly assert the legal concept of “innocent until proven guilty” as a means to justify their behavior2. In fact, yesterday half of Alabama’s voters showed the opposite of the principle demonstrated by Dr. King.
I am grateful that the majority of Americans know when to say “Enough!” and return to their core values even when that is inconvenient, unprofitable or in opposition to some religious positions.
1 In an unrelated event more than a decade ago I was solicited for a bribe by an Alabama civil servant that further decayed my impression of the state, but that’s another story.
2 This is a criminal prosecution concept stemming from English common law, now adopted as an international human right under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11, designed for prosecutorial fairness. It has no implication or bearing whatsoever on an individual’s responsibility for making sound voting decisions in a democratic society.