Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King

My aim in this essay is to contrast two legal retellings of the same event: a set of demonstrations sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that led to the arrest and incarceration of Martin Luther King, Jr. One is the Supreme Court majority opinion in Walker v. City of Birmingham, sustaining King’s conviction; the other, King’s own defense of his actions in his Letter from Birmingham Jail I wish to show how the self-same event entails radically different legal consequences when it appears in different narratives, one the Supreme Court’s official voice, the other the excluded voice of one of the defendants whose condemnation the Supreme Court affirmed. In each, I shall be focusing on aspects usually thought of as literary or “rhetorical”: the structure of narrative, the voice, the range of allusion, the questions that the authors intended to invoke and – equally importantly – those they hoped or had to forestall. If “rhetorical” is meant to indicate conviction through narrative rather than logical procedures, I accept the label; if “rhetorical” is meant to contrast with legitimate argumentation, I reject it. For I have been claiming so far that legal argument gains legitimacy just to the extent that it is able to ground the authority of its own narratives. The criticisms I shall offer of both the Court’s opinion and King’s Letter are criticisms of narrative vision as much as logical coherence.