Discussions of Chapter 8 Study Questions on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Martin Luther King Jr. on Breaking Unjust Laws

26. (631-33) How does Martin L. King defend the right, under certain circumstances, to break a law? In principle he agrees with Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." King says that an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law [the moral law would demand that we respect human rights]. King insists that any law that "degrades human personality" is unjust. [Racial] "segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality."

King explains this concept of "damaging the personality" as follows: This damage depends on the false attitude created by segregation that the white person is superior just because he is white, that the black person is inferior just because he is black.

Upon what moral tradition does King draw? The natural law tradition, in particular the conclusion that laws are unjust when they distribute benefits and burdens unjustly.

But King is also appealing to the point of this tradition that natural moral law command us to develop our higher capacities, including our reason. Segregation statutes teach persons who belong to the allegedly inferior group that they cannot develop their higher capacities, that they must be content always to follow the lead of their alleged superiors.

King also draws upon Gandhi's inspiration--nonviolent civil disobedience, accompanied by a willingness to accept the consequences for breaking an unjust law. The aim of civil disobedience is not the creation of social disorder, the aim is to affect the conscience of those who make the laws so that the laws will be improved.

Malcolm X on Black Nationalism; Malcolm's Probable Views on the Social Contract

27. What, according to Malcolm X, is the political philosophy of black nationalism? (662) The black man should control the politicians and the politics in his community. Likewise "the economic philosophy of black nationalism is that we [black people] should control the economy of our community."

What would Malcolm X say about who was included in the actual social contract of 20th century America? His point was that the politicians in the predominantly black areas of North America were not controlled by black people, and that economic institutions in these areas were not controlled by black people. In other words, even in the North where black people had a legal right to register to vote and to vote, and the legal right to organize, they did not have power corresponding to their numbers. They were not actually a part of the actual social contract. The power structure had effectively persuaded them that they could not be politically powerful or personally significant, except maybe as entertainers.

What kind of social contract might Malcolm X have favored? (Read between the lines: 661-63) He probably would have favored a two-level social contract. The black community must come together independent of the white-dominated power structure, that is, independent of the white social contract. Then, having asserted their power based on their own strengths, the rest of society would have to recognize them as equals and gradually, a more universal social contract might be constructed to enable the black community and the white community to peacefully coexist and even to cooperate. But Malcolm X had reasons to be suspicious of proposals for an alleged colorblind social contract. The complete dissolution of independent black political communities would not be possible for a long time, because it would probably take a long time for whites to completely unlearn their habits of trying to dominate.