Martin Luther King demanded revolution and change in the attitude of general public with Negro community. He had same objective as Socrates; free the youth and leave the path of truth for the forth coming generation. King seems more aggressive in debating, in his letter which he wrote from Birmingham Jail, what wrong the laws brought for Negros and denounced injustice by justifying his actions in that regard. Socrates didn’t opt for direct action and only taught the youth about good, virtue and what is right. King on the other hand took actions to stop injustice. King: We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action… (Letter 1963)
Socrates created tension in minds of youth to be discerning about truth. King went on creating tension in the state.
King (relates his situation with Socrates): Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. (Letter 1963)
King Points out the demerits of the system and people who are part of it
King: While Mr. Boutwell is a much gentler person than Mr. Connor; they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. (Letter 1963)
King was fighting for civil rights whereas Socrates seemed to have been in intellectual fight. However, it will be right to suggest that the latent objective in both the personalities’ decision making was personal and intellectual growth of individuals.
King: when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people. (Letter 1963)
Socrates decided not to disobey the laws and die instead of escaping the unjust punishment because the law said that his escape may support jury’s conviction and they were right to sentence Socrates. It would have been easier for the jury to prove that the one who breaks the laws could be thought to corrupt the young minds. Contrary to Socrates’ decision to abide by the law no matter what, King decided to go against the discriminatory laws if necessary for his campaign. King writes: You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. (Letter 1963)
At another point King expresses his opinion on breaking the unjust laws and writes: Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong. (Letter 1963)
However, Socrates never thought of breaking the law. His friend Crito offered him escape from the prison because he was afraid that majority would think that Crito was not able to save his friend. But Socrates refused and believed that good will prevail and will be identified by good people one day.
(In Plato’s five dialogues) Socrates replied to Crito: But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened. (Jowett)
The situation made him concur not to accept unjust laws.
King: I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
King takes his stance on defining what a just law is according to him.
King: How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. (Letter 1963)
Socrates’ stance on unjust law: Very good; and is not this true, Crito, of other things which we need not separately enumerate? In the matter of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding, and whom we ought to fear and reverence more than all the rest of the world: and whom deserting we shall destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice; is there not such a principle? (Jowett)
King’s justification for his non violent direct action campaign (despite the fact that permission wasn’t granted) is that it is absolutely unjust to not let them protest when they are robbed of their God given rights. He writes: In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? (Letter 1963)
Socrates obeyed the laws because to him being alive was not the objective but leading a good life was.
Socrates: I find with surprise that the old argument is, as I conceive, unshaken as ever. And I should like to know whether I may say the same of another proposition- that not life, but a good life, is to be chiefly valued? (Jowett)
Socrates hinted towards similar example which King proposed. King suggested that depriving Blacks of their rights is as wrong as robbing some person of his property.
Socrates: For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him? Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. (Jowett)
Socrates accepts the punishment and drinks hemlock. But he never accepts that what he taught was wrong or evil. He never apologizes for it. King on the other hand was careful to hurt anyone’s feelings and apologizes to public if he understated the truth.
King: If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. (Letter 1963)
Both the figures brought change in the way of thinking of people. Socrates’ silence spoke words that his followers could hear and he showed them the way to knowledge and truth. King struggled and achieved his goal to change the prejudiced thinking of whites against blacks.