Leave it to the bail insurance company lobbyists to spin a holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. On Monday, ABC posted a nice little story about a guy who once bailed out Martin Luther King. If you read the article, you’ll see that King’s bail out was just a single noteworthy episode in one man’s long and interesting life. No details or anything; just that it happened. I suppose ABC wants people to think, “Hey, look at us. We bailed out Martin Luther King, Jr. We’re great!”
But there’s another guy who bailed out Martin Luther King, and that story’s more telling. In 1963, King was arrested for conducting a parade without a permit in Birmingham, Alabama, and was told he couldn’t leave jail without posting $5,000. Who knows, maybe that amount was appropriate for a permit-less parade, right? Maybe the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was “high risk” to flee or commit serious or violent crimes while on pretrial release. Maybe he had “burned all his bridges,” as the insurance lobbyists like to say, because the $5,000 kept him in jail. Nope, none of that.
A.G. Gaston bailed out King, but only after convincing him that the civil rights movement needed him more outside of jail than in. You see, King wanted to remain in jail to highlight an unjust system. It was part of the “jail, no bail” policy started in 1960 by activists who reasoned that paying bail or fines indicated an acceptance of an immoral system and also depleted their resources to participate in the movement.
So King got out, but not before he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in which he explained to other clergymen why he chose to travel to places far from his home to willfully disobey what he considered to be immoral laws. As King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
The thrust of King’s letter goes to the heart of what it means to do civil disobedience. People have a moral responsibility to obey just laws, King wrote, but they also have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws even as they pay the price for doing so. Quoting Saint Augustine, King wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all,” and to prove his point, King pointed to numerous atrocities committed by Hitler’s Germany, all of which were legal, just as helping Jews or other enemies of Hitler was deemed “illegal.” King wrote: “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
I defy any bail insurance company to argue how America’s bail laws – which base freedom and liberty on one’s wealth – are in any way rooted in eternal or natural law. These laws were created by a class of persons who had money, with no thought whatsoever as to how they might degrade the human personality and spirit through their implementation. We are beyond explaining how money is unfair and doesn’t work. To the extent that governments continue to allow money bail despite these facts means that they are willfully committing immoral acts against their own citizens, a reality that cannot be allowed to continue.
King had more important things to talk about in his letter than bail – homes and churches were being bombed, people were being killed, and the government was condoning a “brutal” form of segregation that required drastic action to curtail. But if he were alive today, I’m convinced that King would be the first to say that even though America’s bail laws are “legal” in the sense that they were once passed by our nation’s lawmakers, they are nonetheless unjust and immoral.
That’s why people are traveling across America today to fix our broken bail system. King traveled to Birmingham because the injustice was in Birmingham. We travel, too, to find and fix injustice.