William and Mary Law School

Douglas Leads Discussion on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Civil Disobedience

  • Douglas on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Disobedience
    Douglas on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Disobedience
    On Thursday, Jan. 16, Dean Douglas led a discussion with members of the Law School community in early observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
    Photo by David F. Morrill

On Thursday, Jan. 16, Davison Douglas, the Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law and dean of William & Mary Law School, led a discussion with members of the Law School community in early observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Using excerpts from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the group explored King’s views on civil disobedience and the rule of law, and considered their importance and application to contemporary problems.

The event stemmed from a Law School tradition of hosting a program every Martin Luther King Jr. Day to commemorate King’s life. Douglas noted that “it has always felt appropriate for the law school…to think concretely about King and his impact on American history,” and that this year’s discussion was intended to once again provide an opportunity for reflection on such an important American figure.

King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail served as the springboard for discussion, which focused on King’s notion of civil disobedience. Written in 1963 when King was imprisoned during civil rights protests in Birmingham, the Letter was King’s defense of nonviolent resistance to racism and disobedience of unjust laws. 

Douglas said that the concept of civil disobedience is “particularly interesting in a legal setting, because we think a lot about the rule of law…. King spoke in a very interesting way about the importance of rule of law and having respect for the law, but [how] under [certain] circumstances it is appropriate to defy the law.”

The group considered King’s ideas of a just law as a conformity between man-made codes and moral or divine law, and his requirement that legitimate civil disobedience be performed openly, lovingly, and with the willingness to accept legal penalties. The discussion moved to how these theories would relate to contemporary challenge to law, like the Edward Snowden controversy.

Douglas joined the faculty at William & Mary Law School in 1990 and became dean in 2009. He holds a J.D. and Ph.D. in American Legal History from Yale and an M.A. in Religion from Yale Divinity School. He was the founding director of the Election Law Program, and is the faculty advisor of the William & Mary Law Review. His areas of specialization include constitutional law and history, race and law, and election law. Douglas has written several books relating to civil rights, including Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954 and Reading, Writing & Race: The Desegregation of the Charlotte Schools.

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Thomas Jefferson founded William & Mary Law School in 1779 to train leaders for the new nation.  Now in its third century, America's oldest law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.