Civil Liberties

Reason on Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Civil Rights


Today is a national holiday that commemorates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the larger civil rights movement of which he was such an important part.

Here are some of Reason's writings about King and other movement leaders.

Justice for All:

The new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial honors King's universal commitment to justice.

Kmele Foster | October 14, 2011

…it's fitting that the memorial's sole quotation directly referencing race contextualizes the subject within King's broader project. "If we are to have peace on earth," the memorial reads, "our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalty must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective."

In the minds of too many Americans, King is primarily a "black" leader and the civil rights movement he has come to embody is principally the endowment of black Americans. But that view inappropriately qualifies the man and the movement. King wasn't narrowly interested in race; he was broadly committed to justice….

Read the whole piece here.

A Fitting Tribute to Medgar Evers: America honors the civil rights hero.

Ira Stoll | November 14, 2011

Each civil rights leader had his own role to play in the struggle for integration. Thurgood Marshall was the lawyer. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inspiring orator. And Medgar Evers was the martyr.

Evers was the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. After President Kennedy had given a nationally televised civil rights speech on June 11, 1963, Evers's wife had let their three children stay up past midnight to wait up for their father, who was returning from a strategy meeting. At about 12:20, they heard the sound of his car, which they recognized. Then they heard the car door open, and then the sound of a rifle shot.

The children kept crying "Daddy, get up, please get up," as their father bled to death.

Medgar Evers was back in the news over the weekend with the U.S. Navy's christening, at San Diego, of the USNS Medgar Evers, a 689-foot, $500 million new dry cargo/ammunition ship. There were remarks by the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi. And by Medgar Evers's widow, Myrlie, who said, ""I will not have to go to bed ever again wondering whether anyone will remember who Medgar Evers is."…

Read the whole story here.

Dream Interpretation

The March On Washington's enduring legacy

Ronald Bailey | August 25, 2003

…[MLK's "I have a dream"] speech also lent momentum to two of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act outlawed state-sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws. For example, it allowed blacks to come down out of that theatre balcony in Bristol Virginia. The Voting Rights Act insured that Southern blacks who were being systematically denied the franchise by corrupt voter registration officials would have access to the ballot box.

Sure, these laws are not perfect. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has been interpreted as authorizing the creation of affirmative action programs. This despite the fact that Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) declared specifically that Title VII "would prohibit preferential treatment for any particular group," and famously promised that if this turned out to be wrong that he would eat the pages on which the statute was printed. I wonder if the Senator would have liked the pages sautéed or with a nice béchamel? And yes, the Voting Rights Act has led to "racial gerrymandering." Still, we are a far better, and fairer country because of those laws.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only remaining speaker from the 1963 march, told the Washington Post, "I wish Dr. King could see the progress that we have made, see the distance that we have come."…

Read the whole thing here.

Like Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" remains a touchstone in American political rhetoric and is always worth reading on a day like this (or any other, for that matter). A snippet:

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. 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.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

Whole text. Read about its composition and more here.

Reason contributor Thaddeus Russell's contrarian take on MLK here.

Damon Root on Moorfield Storey, the libertarian lawyer and "Grover Cleveland Democrat" who helped start the NAACP.

Reason on civil rights.