Justice  /  Explainer

What Makes Laws Unjust

King could not accomplish what philosophers and theologians also failed to—distinguishing moral from immoral law in a polarized society.

Powell had had ample opportunity to condemn segregation and other manifestations of racial mistreatment. He was a lawyer-statesman with national prominence; served as Chair of the Richmond School Board between 1952 and 1961 and President of the American Bar Association; he could be loudly insistent on many topics. In condemning white supremacism, however, Powell was diffident. While he noted for example, that Southern legislatures and officials may have disobeyed the law first by refusing court-ordered school integration, this observation is merely a momentary digression. Powell’s main point was that the United States, for all its flaws, is a democracy that morally warranted obedience from all its citizens, including Negroes.

King did not dispute that point. He, too, pledged fealty to the United Stated; he displayed his devotedness by insisting upon accepting punishment for disobedience. Like Powell, King was a thoroughgoing patriot. Unlike King, however, Powell was not an impassioned enemy of racial oppression. He was, at most, a reserved adversary, condemning some of white supremacism’s most obvious manifestations. But he did not seem to appreciate the breadth, depth, and destructiveness of racial oppression. One might not pick up from Powell’s article, for example, that at the very moment of its publication, the Commonwealth of Virginia continued to punish marriage across the race line as a felony. What most stirred Powell was not the persistence of racism embodied in law, but perceived deficiencies in the thinking of racial dissidents. The lawyer’s thinking reflected the sensibility that King directly chastises in his Letter—the impulse of the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and “who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek [but not your methods of direct action].”

Powell charges King with offering little in his letter that distinguished “good” from “bad” law other than subjective preferences. Echoing Justice Hugo Black, Powell argues that it would be better for the country and Black America for racial justice activists to entrust their demands to democratically sanctioned legal procedures than ad hoc dramatizations on the streets. Further echoing Justice Black, Powell warns that the inclination to act as one pleases, notwithstanding law, would be considerably strengthened by applause for appeals to sources above legality.