Every year around this time, we hear the same soundbites from Martin Luther King’s poetic but relatively innocuous “I Have a Dream” speech. In some schools, textbooks include King’s more thought-provoking essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but they usually censor the thought-provoking parts. What those in power are most eager to hide from young audiences are the parts of King’s philosophy that apply to life today for youth across America.
In the uncensored “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King declares, “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.” Doesn’t this sound like an argument for lowering the voting age? Teenagers in America are a minority: both a numerical minority (being outnumbered by their elders) and a power minority (having less power than middle-agers). When 16-year-olds are denied the right to vote but can be thrown in prison for breaking laws enacted by adults, King reminds us this is undemocratic, and he calls such laws unjust.
In the uncensored “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King declares, “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.” How would this idea apply to curfew laws or the drinking age-limit? The majority group (people older than 21) imposes these restrictions on the minority group (youth) but refuses to impose these restrictions on itself. Adults do not subject ourselves to a curfew. Adults do not deny ourselves alcohol. We instead single out a minority that appears too small to fight back.
On this Martin Luther King Day, let’s remember the real Martin Luther King: a man whose ideas are as provocative today as they were in his own time. But let’s do more than remember King. Let’s use King’s ideas to tackle today’s problems. Let’s follow King’s example of fighting unjust laws. Let’s work to extend King’s legacy by moving America another step closer to the ideal of all Americans enjoying freedom, dignity, and the recognition of our civil rights.