Just Laws, Unjust Laws, and Theo-Moral Responsibility in Traditional and Contemporary Civil Rights Activism

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In his 1963 response to an open letter from eight white religious leaders chastising his involvement in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that civil rights activists’ blatant breaking of some laws while obeying others was the result of two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. Civil rights activists believed they had a legal responsibility to obey just laws and a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Today, new civil rights struggles continue to challenge unjust laws that shred the fabric of democracy that America espouses. Drawing upon both the Civil Rights Movement and the contemporary Movement for Black Lives, this article argues that unjust laws and practices must be broken and challenged before a just society is established. It identifies four ethical strategies for social activism: collective work and responsibility, strategic timing and economic disconnection, political mobilization, and faithful perseverance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)683-717
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of Religious Ethics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2018


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies

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