Being punished for advocating and promoting fundamental rights is as American as pizza, tacos, and apple pie. On this day of remembrance for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is fitting that we commemorate the way the system he struggled to change – physically, psychologically, and verbally – attacked Dr. King and his followers.

To avoid changing racist laws and courts, the system prevented their assemblies. It slandered them as communists, anarchists, and disturbers of the peace. Law enforcement detained them, loosed dogs on them, shot them, sprayed them with fire hoses, and jailed them, all for daring to demand equal treatment and equal justice under the law.

Dr. King marched and spoke and inspired others to join a people’s movement for simple justice, and he followed good historical precedent. Not the kind of precedent judges recognize as justifying the enforcement of oppressive laws, but the precedent of heroes who have long been vindicated for the correctness of their actions, however “illegal” they were at the time. 


Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial located at West Potomac Park in Washington D.C. This memorial opened to the public in 2011, commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). Photo by jpellgen Flickr Creative Commons

The End Game of Justice Movements

Too many Americans celebrate the end game of justice movements. We rejoice that women can vote and hold office, that human beings can no longer be property with their unalienable rights subjugated by the property rights of slave owners. We have a national party on the Fourth of July because hot-headed radicals like Sam Adams and Thomas Paine convinced an ad hoc committee of colonists to declare independence from the British Empire. We note today, with pride in the reformability of American law, that Dr. King succeeded in some measure to end legal segregation.

But we forget to memorialize the courageous challenging of unjust law and the technical “illegality” of doing so. And we forget to memorialize the necessity of continuing to demand justice even after the court’s answer – based on “legal” precedent – is an unequivocal “no!”

We leave out the confrontation between hide-bound legal doctrines that once made slavery legal, women the property of their fathers and husbands, and all Americans the disenfranchised subjects of a monarchy far across the sea.

Dr. King’s Dream

Today is especially memorable to me because Dr. King’s dream of a just society is still only a dream. People are still struggling for simple justice, and being punished for daring to challenge official oppression.

Just a week ago a federal magistrate sanctioned two CELDF attorneys for repeating an argument that prior courts had refused to consider: that people have rights corporations can’t legally violate, and that local governments have the authority to legislate to protect the rights of the community. The court’s message was: Of course corporations can legally violate your rights, and of course the state can forbid your municipality from protecting your rights.

It’s the same message the government sent to Dr. King. Of course Woolworth can refuse service to African Americans. Of course bus lines can force black people to the back of the bus. Of course segregated schools can refuse education to minorities.

Protecting Laws, not Rights

The courts protect the law, not the rights of people. And when the law is racist, anti-democratic, misogynistic, and homophobic, people will be punished, their lawyers sanctioned, and their voices silenced if they try to make the law resemble the American dream . . . or any dream of a better world.

But maybe the real dream is the current American nightmare. Maybe, as James Joyce once wrote, “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And maybe the just world for which some strive, and are punished for daring, is the reality a slumbering, unconscious nation has yet to awaken into. It is hard to believe so many would accept the phantasm of America today with eyes wide open.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is working with communities across the U.S. to transform our system of law and governance. Today, we live under a corporate state, whereby our communities are resource colonies exploited for profit. Our work to elevate Community Rights over corporate privileges, and to recognize the Rights of Nature to exist and flourish, are underway in hundreds of communities across the country.

These communities are rising up, remembering Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.… I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Efforts by the corporate state to quash Community Rights are growing. Your support makes a difference. Please donate today.


Additional Resources