“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.


Justice is a concept that touched every facet of the Civil Rights Movement. From the broad notion of “doing the right thing” to more specific legislative measures, justice was, quite simply, the driving force of the entire Movement.

From the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement, justice – and the lack of it – caused the first instances of action and peaceful protest. One of the most famous examples of the early fights for justice comes from December 1, 1955.

After a long day of working as a seamstress, Rosa Parks got on a bus to go home. The bus driver demanded that she move to the back of the bus to make room for white passengers. Her refusal to move from her seat caused her arrest, and sparked Dr. King’s participation in the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In his first public speech following Parks’ arrest, Dr. King charged the African American community with their role in the boycott, reminding them that it was a small sacrifice of money and convenience to fight for a greater cause. As he closed the speech, Dr. King said:


And I won't rest; I will face intimidation, and everything else, along with these other stalwart fighters for democracy and for citizenship. We don't mind it, so long as justice comes out of it. And I've come to see now that as we struggle for our rights, maybe some of them will have to die. But somebody said, if a man doesn't have something that he'll die for, he isn't fit to live.


Justice through Journalism

Coming April 2017 is a yearlong, nonprofit reporting project about economic justice centered on Dr. King’s focus in his last years: fair wages, good jobs, affordable and safe housing, thriving black businesses and justice. Share compelling storytelling, videos and interactive graphics. Help us draft a bold commitment we can all sign and specific action steps we can all take in pursuit of economic equality. For more information visit mlk50.com.

Justice For All

Daily life in the Jim Crow South exemplified the struggle African Americans faced. Arbitrary laws, ignorant social norms, and segregation – of schools, buses, bathrooms, drinking fountains, businesses, and more – hindered justice and equality.

Sadly, the pursuit of justice was often met with resistance and, sometimes, violence. Scenes from Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 are etched in our history books and minds. These signs of oppression, with the use of fire hoses and police dogs, showed that even peaceful protests in the name of justice were met with an adamant unwillingness to change.

In the same year, Dr. King penned his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which showed his determination to keep fighting, even as he was subjected to the unfairness of the nation’s criminal justice system:


We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'


Challenging The Legal System

The fight against racial injustice came about in many forms throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Every march, peaceful protest, sit-in, and campaign was driven by the hope of “liberty and justice for all.”

Dr. King acted as the face and voice of the Civil Rights Movement, meeting with our nation’s leaders to enact real change. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one such achievement, where it became illegal to discriminate a person based on their gender, race, color, or place of origin in the workforce, schools, and other public institutions.

This and subsequent laws transformed the legal implications for racist, sexist, and xenophobic actions that limited the rights and freedom of so many.

See Veda Ajamu's powerful story of advocating for criminal justice reform and fair sentencing.

Veda gave us a vivid look at how her family has struggled to stay connected to her brother, Robert, during his decades in the Federal prison system in this podcast episode of The Permanent Record.