Commentary: Drum Major for Justice

By Jermaine A. Wyrick

One of my proudest moments as an attorney, did not come in the courtroom.  In the spring of 2004, my mother’s church choir sang at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pastored.  There, I met Coretta Scott King and told her that “Learning about her husband inspired me to become an attorney.”  She proudly and graciously smiled back with a twinkle in her eye.

Every third Monday in January, since the passage of the Martin Luther King Jr.  Federal Holiday Act in 1986, we collectively come together to celebrate not only his birthday, but his legacy in the betterment of humanity. 

Although Dr. King as a youth had an interest in law, he did not pursue it as an occupation.  Notwithstanding, he definitely pursued justice, which had dramatically changed the nation from the racist Jim Crow segregation laws to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

In 1955, as a result of his leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a United States District Court decided the case of Browder v. Gayle, which ended racial segregation on Montgomery buses.  When Dr. King became involved with the 1963 Birmingham Bus Boycott, some Birmingham natives were antagonistic, characterizing him as an “outside agitator” who acted “unwise” and “untimely.”  Consequently, Dr. King’s profoundly answered his critics in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which included the quote—“Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere!”  Prior to Dr. King’s activism in Birmingham “racial injustice” engulfed Birmingham—segregation, “grossly unjust treatment in the courts, unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches; humiliating racial signs in stores.”  Dr. King cited the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools as compelling reasons to outlaw segregation in other areas, including businesses, housing, transportation, voting.  During the course of his speeches and writings, Dr. King made numerous references to the law.  “The arc of the moral universe is long…but it bends toward justice.”  Thus, he believed that morality is inextricably linked to law.  Dr. King stated, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”  Furthermore, he believed in the orderly administration of justice, as opposed to vigilante.  Specifically, Dr. King stated, “that old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.  The time is always right to do the right thing.” 

Dr. King not only made the ultimate sacrifice in his death at age 39, but made profound sacrifices during his life, specifically deprivations of his freedom. 

He was jailed for disobeying racist laws.  Dr. King’s perspective was that, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” 

Dr. King was strongly opinionated on criminal justice issues and said, “It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes.”  He thought there was a direct link between racist public policy such as segregation that promoted poverty and social isolation, and one’s propensity to commit crime.  Dr. King always strongly advocated for peace, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”  Dr. King’s belief in non-violence led him to winning the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.   

In conclusion Dr. King said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”  I am glad as an America that we pay homage to the late, great Dr. King.  Hopefully, we can learn from his example that the pursuit of justice may not be an easy road to take, but always one that is worthwhile. 

Attorney Jermaine A. Wyrick, can be reached at (313) 964-8950, or by e-mail:  He is available for speaking engagements on legal topics.