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Law And Justice In Sophocles’ Antigone And Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail

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Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Discrimination is prevalent in almost every aspect of our lives, whether it is gender, religion, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation. But when we do encounter those unfortunate situations, the majority of the time, we stay silent. What many do not understand is that the oppression of one can affect the oppression of the entire nation. Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone, portrays a young woman fighting for the justice of her deceased brother, Polyneices, for a peaceful burial. However, she transgresses against the King’s law and risks her life in the process. African American activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested and put in jail for protesting for human rights without a permit. Therefore, he acts by writing a letter to the officials. Even though these courageous figures differ in their methods of fighting for justice, both Antigone and Martin Luther King break laws to correct unjust laws, despite the consequences that follow. Sophocles’ Antigone and Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” explore a common theme that law sometimes conflicts with justice through characterization, figurative language, and classical persuasive appeals.

In Antigone, some characters representing justice and law conflict with each other. The two characters that portrays such characteristics are Antigone, daughter of King Oedipus and Creon, the current ruler of Thebes. For instance, in the play, Antigone says, “And if I have to die for this pure crime, / I am content, for I shall rest beside him;/ His love will answer mine” (Sophocles 72-74). The author implies that Antigone is willing to die to bury her brother beloved brother. Based on her belief of her culture and society, Antigone believes that despite Polyneices’s crime, he shall be buried because it is morally right. Even though he shed blood in this world, he should have the chance to enter the underworld. On the contrary, Creon says. “Whoever is chosen to govern should be obeyed – Must be obeyed, in all things, great and small, Just and unjust!” (Sophocles 527-529). He suggests that despite wrong or right, just or unjust, if one is the King, everyone shall kneel down and execute his orders. Creon argues that since Polyneices built up an army and fought against his own kingdom, he must be punished for his actions even though he is already dead. In the end, they are both carrying out the right deeds of justice, but their mindset of sticking to what they believe is right contradict one another.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King uses allusion by referencing greek philosopher, Socrates to support his idea of breaking unjust laws for it to become just. Although, King asks for permission to withhold a permit to protest, he is denied due to segregation laws. In order to abolish such immoral laws, he must break laws to correct the unjust laws. For instance, King argues that it is necessary to create tension to seize attention from the officials, just as Socrates created tension in the minds of people so they would rise away from false information:

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Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood (King page number).

In other words, Socrates created tension in the mind to amend one’s opinion, by using his well-known method of questioning. Furthermore, King uses the same method “for nonviolent gadflies” to seize attention from the officials and to divert people’s blinded opinion about segregation. King’s way of creating nonviolent tension was his act of protesting without permission. The use of allusions allows King to figuratively explain the fogged mindset that many have about segregation. His act of creating tension invokes the attention of the community and forces them to question such laws.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King uses ethos, pathos, and logos to demonstrate that segregation laws are unjust and it contradicts with human morals. For example, he mentions Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian, to show reliability to support his argument. In his letter, King quotes Thomas Aquinas, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” (King page number). All just laws should uplift human society, not degrade human society. To demonstrate the difference between just and unjust laws, King uses an ethical approach to prove his point about segregation being politically and sociologically wrong. Segregation laws grant power to certain people, while striping power from others. Such act is unfair and goes against the natural law. In addition, he uses pathos, the use of emotional appeal to further prove his point: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights” (King Page number). In other words, King implies that people of color never got the chance to bear human rights since African Americans were considered property three centuries ago. Lastly, he uses logos, the use of factual evidence to support his claim. Dr. Kings states, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negros homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case” (King page number). On a regular basis, African Americans are attacked and discriminated; most of the brutal incidents occur in Birmingham, Alabama. By directly stating these brutal facts, he is able to able to back up the fact that segregation laws are discriminatory, and they bring harm instead of protection. Using the three essential elements of persuasion, King attempts to persuade government officials to abolish racial segregation laws.

In conclusion, Dr. King’s famous letter and Sophocles’ Greek tragedy both centralize on the idea of human laws interfering with justice. Sophocles demonstrates the theme of justice through the character Creon, who fights for the justice of mortal law and Antigone, who fights for justice of moral law. On the other hand, Dr. King uses historical reference in his letter to constrain people to question unjust laws. Furthermore, he uses ethical, emotional, and logical appeal to convince the government to revoke laws that bring harm to innocents, and corruption to the US justice system. Enforcing such laws allow society to think it is acceptable to treat others with injustice. This idea can spread like a contagious disease by influencing young minds, further destabilizing the society and future generations. Therefore, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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Law And Justice In Sophocles’ Antigone And Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
“Law And Justice In Sophocles’ Antigone And Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
Law And Justice In Sophocles’ Antigone And Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Jan. 2023].
Law And Justice In Sophocles’ Antigone And Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Jan 30]. Available from:
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