Only when you understand this historical context can you fully understand King’s 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in which he wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue … Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” That sounds a lot like Douglass’ “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
In his Letter, King also wrote, “One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust … An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”
The power of that analysis of just versus unjust laws has one level of resonance if you view it in the context of 1955 Montgomery, when King led the historic bus boycott, or 1963 Birmingham. It has another level of resonance in the context of the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott or Plessy. In Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, Chief Justice Taney told the country that “a negro has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” In Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 the court gave America sanctioned segregation. King’s writings and actions must always be viewed as a struggle within a broader historical and ongoing struggle for human rights and social justice — not in the tiny vacuum of his particular space in time.
When one examines the ongoing struggle for human and civil rights in America, we look at certain historical events and the presidents who facilitated them. Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the New Deal, as well as Executive Order 8802 in 1941 banning racial discrimination in government employment and defense industries; and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson with civil rights and voting rights legislation of the 1960s.
Each of these events came about through struggle. Strong individuals pushing for them and strong presidents willing to put their administrations, if not their lives, on the line to make them happen. It’s something King wrote about in his Letter — the need for “nonviolent gadflies” to help society shake the patterns of racism and prejudice.
Lincoln’s nonviolent gadfly was Douglass. In his famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” delivered in 1852, Douglass said, “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common … Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? … There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”