In this paper, I will argue that the views and arguments of Martin Luther King on disobeying unjust laws were more persuasive than the ideas that Plato presents through the words of Socrates in Crito. Laws in certain societies are more suitable for some citizens, but for other parts of society, they are found to be unjust. In the time periods of Plato and Martin Luther King, this was exactly the case, as the divides amongst people allowed there to be an uncertainty of the law. Plato’s beliefs were merely based on the events that affected Socrates, who simply believed in always obeying the law. Opposed to Martin Luther King, who in the Birmingham Jail defends his position on breaking unjust laws, even outlining when it is acceptable to do so.
Plato translates the events that happened after the trial of Socrates (Apology) titling this work Crito, in this work we see Crito coming to break Socrates out of prison. Socrates was just given the verdict of death by the jury and Crito wanted him to escape the prison so he would not be killed, ultimately choosing death (Discussion & Lecture 2/5-2/7). Plato’s description of these events shows Socrates and his will to follow the rules that he had been following for his whole life. Plato’s beliefs on unjust laws were that one should not act unjustly in the event of being a victim of any unjust treatment or punishment. Socrates, also thought that escaping the prison would violate his duty towards one’s creators, subverting the rule of law (Lecture 2/5). Socrates understood that there was a need for changes in Athens’ government, but he didn’t want to turn his beliefs into action, which would discredit all of the work he had done before. In Crito, Plato writes “Whereas you, above all other Athenians, seemed to be so fond of the State, or, in other words, of us her laws” (Crito 13), depicting why breaking the unjust laws was so hard for Socrates at a time where all eyes were upon him. This quote also shows how Athens was ruled, once born in the state it was hard to leave its grip, more importantly, its laws. The environment that Athens created ultimately sets the tone for how the laws should be followed in the future. In Athens, you were born into a social standard, and changing that title was hard to do once you grew up, once again representing the grip the law had on the people.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is a deep look into the reality of the racial inequality that the United States was facing in the 1960s. King directs this letter to his clergymen that were a part of the non-violent march that took place in Birmingham, Alabama. This march is completely justified now but back then it was not so popular as African Americans in the United States were widely oppressed for the last century, if not more. In the letter, King responds to a comment, this comment comes from someone who thought the actions that King took weren’t right. The comment was about how the event was perceived by those that lived in Alabama, he was being described as “unwise and untimely” (King 1). Also, saying that he was an outsider who doesn’t belong in this part of Alabama, and overall what he was doing was incorrect. He responds back to these comments by saying he was not there to cause trouble, but because of the racism that many African American folks faced in the South, and that it was time for him to step up and face these unjust laws. Every law that King broke the support behind it was incredible, demonstrations like hunger strikes, blockades, marches, and sit-ins were all non-violent protests for a cause no one wanted to step up for. Another belief of King is that there are two types of laws, “there are just laws, and there are unjust laws” (King 3). Once again proving how some laws are meant to be followed, but the world they faced then allowed them to differentiate the ones that were wrong. He goes onto define what a just law is, and how the idea compares against unjust laws that are directed towards African Americans. The letter that Martin Luther King wrote from prison really represents his nature, and how willing he was to get the job done regardless of the side effects and noise around him.
As for perspectives and which one was the most persuasive, I once again have to say that King’s beliefs on unjust laws were more persuasive than that of Plato in Crito. When you compare both of the circumstances and what world they both lived in King had more of a reason to speak out and disobey laws compared to Plato. The reason why Plato’s idea seemed so hesitant with disobeying the laws stems from how the Athenian government was run, and how the people were treated. In contrast, during King’s time the United States government didn’t know how to react towards the peaceful movements for African American rights, this allowed King to continue supporting the acts of disobeying unjust laws. King’s perspective and argument were fit better for today’s society and how we interpret laws. The beliefs that Plato shares from Socrates were also the same beliefs that all of Athens had at that time, making it seem like the laws were good for all, but they turned on him. If you take a look at King’s story, you see how he traveled and took in ideas from others to make his beliefs against unjust laws believable and most importantly he was able to create a following. Socrates offered all of his knowledge and beliefs to the Athenian people, and in return, he got a decision from those same people to be killed for his actions.
In our world today we see laws being broken on a daily basis, regardless of what scale these laws are held to. An example from class is emergency contraceptives, and how the right to access this medicine can be denied based on someone else’s belief. Even though this is depicting a different scenario, we can compare this idea to Plato’s argument in Crito. The arguments in Crito stemmed from the influence of the laws on each other’s lives, similarly, someone can deny the request to contraceptives because of their religious or moral beliefs. We don’t all have to agree with people’s beliefs, this is because not all of us have received the same interpretation of the laws. Often times we interpret laws as to what they mean for us, overshadowing the people that these laws can possibly harm. Recently the state of Alabama presented the law of taking away all types of emergency contraceptives, including birth control and abortions. This is a scary sight to see, almost the majority of the country is against laws of this nature, but in Alabama, this law seems to be a popular belief amongst the residents of the state. Whether this is right or wrong is up to the government of the state of Alabama, who is still considering the law. Another example that we discussed in the lecture was how someone disagreed with baking a wedding cake for a gay couple’s marriage. Even though I personally think that this is incorrect, the person who said no to making the cake had disagreements with the idea of the marriage, including the law allowing them to get married. This example shows how one can disobey laws that he personally thinks are unjust similar to the idea of the emergency contraceptive, but this is on a smaller scale. The idea of disobeying this law is dependent on what beliefs you hold as a human being, and what beliefs you grew up learning as your morals. If either of these traits of yourself is affected by the laws, then they can be considered unjust for you. For others, however, who don’t have this as one of their beliefs can choose to agree with the law as much as they want, and nothing could come in the way of that.
The arguments for both sides are accurate to their own time period, but Martin Luther King was the one who stood up against the unjust laws. Along with that, he was able to make a stand on racial segregation, instead of folding and obeying the laws like Socrates. Even though Plato’s words were not his own, the ideas and beliefs represent a time in our world where laws were a new sort of living. People were told how to live, disregarding basic human necessities of free will but they had no idea about this since they were just obeying their government’s laws. After examining both perspectives of Plato, and Martin Luther King the time period affects their ideology and work more than their ideas themselves. But the persuasiveness and work of Martin Luther King goes unmatched, regardless of what century these events took place.