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Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass

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Race relations, especially between blacks and whites, have always been a problematic and fiery issue throughout United States’ history. Frederick Douglass was a self-taught black man who wrote about his experiences as a slave. In his book, “From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”, he makes many brilliant depictions and insights into the injustices and cruelty of slavery. In 1863, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation and blacks were forever freed from slavery. However, this did not put an end to racial tension or to the black man’s hope for racial equality. One hundred years later, segregation was the prevailing system, a system not nearly as cruel as slavery, but still it was evil and of great hardship to the twentieth century black man. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter from jail justifying his “nonviolent” crusade to end segregation forever. King’s letter is through and his ideas and arguments are expressed efficiently with well-grounded rationale. Douglass is more difficult to understand because there is much more substance under the surface of his writing. Although they are separated by a century, Douglass and King parallel each other significantly.

King’s rhetoric and system of analysis are a helpful lens1 through which to scrutinize and extract the important realizations dwelling in Douglass’s story. Both King and Douglass describe a predicament in which they face a clash between white man’s law and moral law. Douglass tells a story of his personal experience, whereas King is more concerned with making his points and backing them up with his concrete examples. King is more descriptive, more scholarly in his writing considering he was formally educated and more exposed than Douglass who was born a slave. King thought laws prohibiting a black man from sitting in the white section of the bus or eating at a white luncheon counter or having a civil rights march were unfair and degrading. King wanted to end segregation by causing a commotion; he wanted to act as a “gadfly,” a commotion, so that people were forced to deal with the segregation issue because negotiation did not work. King felt direct-action was necessary to making any progress, so having illegal parades to protest segregation was essential. In fact, King admired the idea of breaking “unjust laws” because they cause “non-violent gadflies”.

“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 conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”(King 128) King went to jail for doing something just and for a greater good, yet he broke the law in doing it. Segregation was legal in Birmingham, Alabama. The police enforced the law because it was illegal to have racial equality. King was a master at exposing the truth and providing examples to back his ideas up and systematically destroyed the arguments for segregation. His important quotation from T.S. Eliot shows the irony in enforcing segregation. “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”(King 136) This is an absurd situation, something that sparks a dilemma in the mind, something that has to be solved. King wants people to look inward and to understand the reality of existing moral injustices and fix them.

King justified his breaking the law because he was breaking an “unjust law” in order to comply with a higher moral law. King explains an “unjust law” as “a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King 126), “any law that degrades human personality” (King 127), and as “a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”(King 127) King’s rationale was simple. Applying King’s arguments and knowledge to Douglass’s stories helps one realize more significant ideas dwelling in Douglass’s story. In fact, there is a major parallel between King and Douglass. The only difference is that King defines his idea on the surface, whereas in Douglass, the idea is lurking. Douglass is a young, naive slave who was blessed to have a master, Mrs. Auld, who was nice and taught him some lessons in reading. This harmless event turns into a debacle when Mr. Auld finds out about his wife giving their slave an education. Mr. Auld told his wife in front of young Douglass how “unlawful” and “unsafe” it is to educate a slave and “if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”(Douglass 78)

This seemingly unfortunate event was actually the “gadfly” which sparked a whole new train of thought in Douglass’s mind. He may have lost the privilege of reading lessons and the friendship of Mrs. Auld, but he gained important insight into the world, “a special revelation.”(Douglass 78) He explains, “I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.”(Douglass 78) Douglass does not care that pursuing his education is illegal. Like King, Douglass is able to see the difference between “unjust laws” and “just laws” and similar to the police in Birmingham, Mr. Auld is enforcing a law to maintain an immoral system of slavery. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. (Douglass 78)

Although Douglass does not say it outright, one gets the feeling that he understands the discrepancy between moral and white man law. King’s letter is very clear, precise and right; it is no wonder why he is so popular. His strategy is formulaic: he presents the issue, provides concrete evidence, and then makes a conclusion. Douglass is a wonderful storyteller who uses his poetic style to recount an experience. His writing is full of beautiful descriptions within long, flowing sentences. These two men have different styles and, in this particular case, their writings are for different purposes. Yet, both men touch on similar notions connected with the great issue of racial inequality and “just and unjust laws.”

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