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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

By Babacar Faye - Today, January 16th, marks a day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of an individual whose courage and passion defined the course of history and changed the mindset of a distrustful, divided and unjust society. Born in Georgia on January 15th, 2023, Martin Luther King became the spokesman for the nascent civil disobedience during the 1960's Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Accompanied by a generation driven by a spirit of change, King was an exceptional orator and used his talent to rally the American public to his cause. In the aftermath of World War II and the global decolonization movement, Martin Luther King's message resonated with people everywhere he went, drawing massive crowds. He was able to raise awareness in a peaceful manner, despite the violent racism and ignorance prevalent at the time.

A minister by profession, Martin Luther King came to our attention during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in the wake of Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger. In the decade and years that followed, Martin Luther King would become one of the most prominent faces of the Civil Rights Movement, and his approach to peaceful disobedience was a major factor in the success of the movement.


Arrested and jailed for protesting against racial segregation in April 1963, Martin Luther King wrote in a letter from his cell in Birmingham:

One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.[1]


As our firm reflects on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, this bring us to reflect on our own circumstances, and how one could replicate the spirit of Martin Luther King in every day advocacy. While the phrase strikes us as clear and compelling in view of King's and his contemporaries' lengthy struggle, it also provokes reflection on the impact of the historical exclusion of minorities on the development and interpretation of the law. This exclusion often relied on the law to be accomplished, and the law acted as a shield for those who enacted them. In the same breath, the entire letter is an excellent account of the motives behind MLK Jr's strategy of civil disobedience.


Martin did not live to see his dream fully come to fruition. He was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968, during a speech in Tennessee. A few days after his death, the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which had a significant impact on the fight against racial segregation in the US. While we are still not quite in the world envisioned by Martin Luther King in his 'I have a dream' speech, enormous progress has been made in the protection of minority rights everywhere, not only in the United States, but around the world. Despite the abrupt end of his illustrious journey, his death did not bring it to an end, and his dream lives on in our everyday lives.


Despite our inclinations towards POGG, we must emulate King in his tenacity and perseverance, and his critical approach, which calls on us to adopt a fresh perspective, on the conditions under which we co-exist and operate, and on the moral responsibility we afford ourselves in the practice of law.Above all, we must not forget the enormous courage shown by Martin Luther King in his unrelenting struggle. In my young career, one of the first pieces of advice I received was “if you’re ever in an unpopular position, that you sincerely believe in, you must not allow yourself to be pushed around, and should not be afraid to defend your position”. When I look at the legacy of Martin Luther King, I fully understand the meaning of that phrase.

[1] Birmingham Letter Excerpts for Activity.pdf (jfklibrary.org)

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