The trouble occurred afterward at the House of Deputies meeting, when a resolution was introduced that spoke to the principles of King’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. The resolution “recognized the right of persons to disobey segregation laws that are in ‘basic conflict with the concept of human dignity under God.’” Civil disobedience had to be nonviolent, done only after “earnestly seeking the will of God in prayer.” Many in the clergy supported the proposal, but a number of lay delegates opposed it. “This is the first time in all of the history of this church that we have been asked to take a position that recognizes the right of people to disobey the law,” a Minneapolis delegate complained. “This is the way to chaos.” Reverend Gordon E. Gilett of Illinois responded: “One of my ancestors picked up a musket at Lexington and fought the British and I am certain we agree that was one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience.” When the measure came to a vote, it had the support of a majority of the clergy but did not receive enough support from lay delegates. The resolution was rejected. In protest, Marshall walked out.
Here is a Federal judge, the very embodiment of our law, acting as though he had turned in his judicial robes for a pair of sneakers and a CORE sweatshirt. The spectacle is ludicrous and not a little hypocritical.
This is a man who sits upon the United States Circuit Court of Appeals asking his church to encourage followers who violate selected laws “for reasons of conscience.”
The terrible danger of such an official endorsement of civil disobedience is that it leaves to the individual to judge what laws to violate, and individuals have different
ideas of “human dignity under God.”
This endorsement would have been an invitation to anarchy!
This passage is taken from Mary L. Dudziak, Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2008). Cross-posted at Balkinization.