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Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”

Martin Luther King Junior was in his cell in Birmingham, Alabama while writing “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In this letter, he particularly says that “law and order exist to establish justice … when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress1.” To understand what Dr. King Jr. meant by these words, it is important to define social progress. Social progress refers to the capacity of a community to sustain its members with necessities, their quality of life, and create favorable conditions that can improve human lives. Thus, Dr. King Jr. meant that to achieve legal and social equality among people from different backgrounds, there must be a functional system of law and order.

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Law and Society: The Judiciary

The study of society and law lies in the perception that legal decisions and rules must be comprehended in context. One of the characteristics of law is that it is not autonomous and does not exist outside the social world; however, it is profoundly rooted within society2. Although researchers recognize that law is political in nature, society and law perspective elevates this assumption by demonstrating the historical and social construction of the law. Law and society impact and reflect a community’s culture, especially in England and Wales. They further demonstrate that there is a reinforcement of inequalities via competence and differential access to legal institutions and procedures. In this context, Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to explain this concept in his letter. The role of the judiciary in society is to deliver justice according to regulations. The courts settle disputes, punish those who break legislations and apply the law.

In his statement, Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to highlight how the law discriminated against the people. A society is supposed to be a place where people can live together in an organized manner. The order in society is a result of the existence of rules and regulations applied by the judiciary. In this context, Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned this statement in his letter because the judiciary was applying the law to favor certain members of society. According to a study by GOV.UK, roughly 85 % of the population in England and Wales consists of the white ethnic group3. The report further states that within this figure, approximately 45 million people (80%), is affiliated with the white British group. The research continues to demonstrate that about four million of the roughly eight million people in London belong to the white British ethnicity. From these figures, one can tell that Wales and England have a higher population of white British people. Only 20 % of the remaining is shared among the remaining minorities including Hispanics and African Americans.

Criminal justice and experiences are significantly dissimilar among ethnic groups in Wales and England. In British life, religiously aggravated and racist attacks are a never-ending phenomenon. Statistics states that minority groups in Wales and England are twice as more likely to report cases of being anxious about attacks than white British4. In most cases, state police usually do not take action or may respond later when it is too late. When this takes place, the victims, often the minority group is injured or the result might be lethal. When family members seek the help of the court, they usually do not get the justices they need. Generally, such cases are mainly judged by a panel consisting of mostly white British individuals. As a result, the claimant usually loses the case even before they present it. From Martin Luther’s statement, when this happens, it creates tension among ethnic groups. Consequently, there may arise a situation where riots may occur to force the judiciary to apply the law appropriately.

Law and society in England and Wales further do not favor particular religious communities. Both Wales and England have a huge population belonging to the Christian religion. According to statistics, non-Christians are approximately ten times more likely to disclose reports of fear of being harassed or attacked as a result of their faith compared to Christians5. Furthermore, according to a 2020 survey about hate crimes, between 2018 and 2019, the total amount of felonies reported were roughly 103,000 in England and Wales6. The figure represents a 10 % increase in crime rate reports since 2017. Additionally, the research continues to state that 8 out of 10% misdemeanors were associated with religious crimes and represented a 3 % increase since 2017. Most of these hate crimes had additional motives such as race. From these facts, one can deduce that England and Wales’ judicial systems have not been effective when it comes to punishing hate crimes. As a result, as described by Dr. King Jr., the England and Wales society may experience dangerous times because of the lack of equality in disseminating justice.

The social progress of England and Wales is deteriorating because children are further being discriminated on racial and religious grounds. Additionally, children from minorities including black ethnicities were afraid of using public amenities such as buses because they were not safe. For society and law to prevail, everyone living in it must be treated equally. In this case, every member of society must feel safe. They must be allowed to utilize public resources without being worried that something tragic might happen to them. When Dr. King Jr. wrote his letter, he meant that social progress entailed having a justice system that punished people according to their deeds and not from their religious or racial affiliations.

The function of the judiciary is to protect the rights of the members of a particular society. However, in Wales and England, the judiciary has consistently failed to safeguard the rights of its people, especially those who belong to minority ethnic groups. For instance, in the case of Onu v Akwiwu and another; Taiwo v Olaigbe and another7, the court upheld their decision stating that the case was not a direct discrimination against immigrants. Therefore, employers could take away the claimants immigration documents and force them to work for long hours with little pay. Consequently, these minority groups have lost confidence in the judiciary to protect their rights. The protection of rights further applies to visitors of the country. Travelers and Gypsies come to England and Wales for activities such as sightseeing and business. All these generate income for England and Wales and help build their economy. Despite this, most of these travelers and Gypsies experience racial discrimination.

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Social progress is an essential factor for a given community to prosper. Today, almost every community in the world has diverse members. Therefore, there is the requirement of inclusion without creating perceptions that divide people in society. Nevertheless, if this occurs, the laws as applied by the judiciary should be sufficient to protect its people. However, this is not the case because most white British individuals consider minorities as the most offenders. Despite this perception, evidence shows that race does not determine offending rates8. In England and Wales, the criminal justice system harshly punishes minority groups compared to British whites. The population of black people in Wales and England comprises about 3 % of the population. According to a GOV.UK report, out of those who were stopped by the police in 2015, 15 % were from the black ethnic group9. These pieces of evidence show that there exist disparities when it comes to applying the law. As a result, this does more harm than good to society.

The judiciary functions is a body that ensures that there exists equality in the application of legislations within society. In situations where law is ambiguous or inconsistent or is silent according to the laws of the land, a judge must use his role to be wise, impartial, and fair when delivering judgment. However, this seems not to be the case in Wales and England because there exists a law that allows police to stop and search individuals. The law discriminates between minority groups and the majority group. For instance, between 2010 and 2016, the stop and search policy has significantly increased among the Asian and black ethnic groups10. Furthermore, travelers and Gypsies have had a challenging experience when it comes to this particular law. Law enforcement officers are allowed to destroy their property when they refuse to comply even when they do not have a warrant to search or arrest an individual. As a result, these individuals are frequently removed from their homes by policemen.

In terms of criminal justice, it is important to note the statistics of how the law disproportionately handles crime sentences. Research states that per 1,000 population, there are several arrests for the minority and black population compared to the British white ethnic group11. Compared to 25 incarcerations per 1,000 population for the white British ethnicity, there were 85 incarcerations per 1,000 population of black people in England and Wales. Furthermore, about 60 Asians per 1,000 population were arrested compared to the white British population12. Thus, this shows that the police discriminate against lawbreakers in terms of ethnicity. When taken to court, a significant number of minority and black people are immediately taken to custody for minor offenses compared to that of the White population. The length of custodial sentencing also varies along ethnic lines with 15 months being the longest for white British ethnicity while the average for the minority population is 20 months. This reflects the level of injustice that the judiciary experts in England and Wales’s society.

The reason why Martin Luther King’s words were meaningful is that they further explained the composition of the judiciary. In the justice department, this is a significant factor because it helps balance the power of being indiscriminate. If the justice department allows the judiciary to be more diverse, there would be equitable justice distribution among different ethnic communities. However, this is not the case with the fact demonstrating that there is a significant underrepresentation of certain minority ethnicities in the justice departments of England and Wales13. At some point, particularly in 2012, there were no minority judges both in the court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. On the Court bench, only 5 % represented the minority population and 2 % were Circuit Judges. Furthermore, the minority population who were magistrates (District Judges) was only 3 %. Additionally, the Queen’s Counsel was composed of about 5 % the blacks14. These are the factors that Martin Luther King Jr. was highlighting in his statement. These elements do not make the justice system or the judiciary fair when it comes to applying the law.

Law and Power: Inequality, Harm and Vulnerability

Inequality and power examine the maintenance and origins of various types of human inequalities across space and time. Inequalities and power further examine the social mobilizations that create challenges between the two. According to studies, approximately 3 percent of the black community in Britain consists of influential and powerful individuals15. Furthermore, the Guardian, together with other academic institutions found that in the 1,000 security, cultural, judicial, financial, and political figures, only about 35 percent were from the minority ethnicities. From this figure, only 7 percent were women from the minority population. These studies show the clear discrimination of minorities in England and Wales. Currently, as Dr. King Jr. mentioned in his statement, the situation is negatively affecting communities, individuals, and the whole society.

Due to disparities in the power structure, minority populations do not have mentors. Mentors are essential since they provide children with a sense of hope, optimism, and aspiration for success. The reason for this is that they would grow up knowing that one day they would be like a particular member of their society. Moreover, this inclusion would ensure that children develop with the confidence that they would be able to find powerful jobs. According to research, most minority populations do not have the confidence to apply for jobs they are qualified for16. On the other hand, the British white population is confident enough to apply for the same jobs even without proper qualifications. Currently, according to a survey done on powerful jobs such as the judiciary, the civil and political service, and the defense, the results questioned the integrity of legislation. These results found that some of these legislations did not follow the 2010 Equality Act17 and the 2000 Race Relation Law18. Thus, these rules do very little to protect the people thereby creating more disparities.

If an individual in Britain is either an Asian or a black person, it is almost impossible to attain powerful positions. White British ethnicity lockout black people from getting to powerful positions. Until today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words still apply when he said that this derails social progress. Currently, due to the exclusion of the minority population out of positions of power, England and Wales are still struggling with developing most sectors of their society. A society without a culturally diverse leadership system will never reflect the values of its people. Specifically, they will never reflect the community’s value when it comes to public bodies and services, which serve society. The message Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to pass, in this case, was that there was no absolute reason for excluding minorities in positions of power.

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There has been some progress made in the sector of promoting people from minority ethnic groups since the introduction of the 2000 Race Relation Act. The law emphasizes public organizations to enhance racial equality. Some of the amendments in the law can be seen in the Essop and others v Home Office case that prohibits claimants from using a tribunal when a company rule is termed as neutral19. As a result, at the moment, the representation of the minority ethnic groups is at approximately 12 %. Moreover, in Wales and England, the representation of minority groups in the judicial system has risen to 7 %. Public bodies have further improved their promotion rate of the minority group and currently, the rate stands at roughly 6 %; however, this has not changed for senior levels20. In the political sector, the number of leaders has increased to about 8 % with the 2017 general election marking the point of this increase. The figure represents the number of member of members of parliament that were elected from the minority ethnicity. Compared to the 2001 carbonate, the current one has more minority members.

Despite the progress in power distribution among the minority population, inequalities remain deep-rooted in the community. A recent United Kingdom study found that at least a third of the minority ethnic population employees reported experiencing racial discrimination, bullying, and abuse at work. Furthermore, a Lammy review further warns individuals of the presence of the justice system being racially biased in England and Wales21. Other pieces of research further report issues of ethnicity in institutions of higher learning. Generally, England and Wales have issues of racism, power, and inequalities. These have hindered social progress in several ways including insecurities among ethnic groups. Another hindrance is that an organization that does not include diversity is not able to know how best to serve its customers.

The law and power are vulnerable subjects, which oftentimes are overlooked. In most cases, individuals provide a shallow definition of vulnerability as being open to emotional or physical harm. Nevertheless, vulnerability is supposed to be seen as a primal condition for human beings. As individuals who are embodied, people are distinctively and universally continuously prone to alterations in their well-being. These alterations can be either negative or positive depending on the situation. From the very beginning of human life, we are susceptible to harm because we must depend on others. Despite the pressure that exists within society, people must conduct themselves in a manner that disguises their vulnerability. In this case, they do so that they could conform to the community since there exists an acceptable form of behavior in society.

England and Wales’ society members are no exception when it comes to vulnerability. Perhaps, the most affected communities, in this case, are the minority population in England and Wales. Those in power at the moment are conducting state business to favor the elite in society. In Wales and England, the elite are the top 1 percent of the total population. These individuals own almost half of the community and use it selfishly. The people who suffer from these deeds are the lower-ranking populations. The poor comprise about 30 % of the England and Wales population. Without stable jobs, these individuals mainly suffer from starvation because they lack the finances to buy food. On the other hand, the elite in society continues to accumulate wealth. Because of their wealth, they further have the power to influence government policies. These policies often favor their interest and harm the poor who are incapable of changing these policies.

For justice to exist there must be a judicial system that manages inequality, vulnerability, and harm within society. When the justice system does not prevail or apply the law to favor certain community members, it fails to accomplish its function in society. As a result, an imbalance develops within the community, which disrupts social progress. Additionally, it should be noted that vulnerability is a key factor when it comes to political power and social equity. Furthermore, vulnerability varies among social classes and different cultures. Depending on the law and structure of society, those who are highly vulnerable are the ones who are harmed when power shifts on one side. Thus, for social progress to occur, there must be balance and the judiciary must ensure it applies the law without discrimination.


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  1. Martin Luther King Jr, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (1993) 26 UC Davis L Rev 835, 842.
  2. Lynn Mather, ‘Law and Society’ (Oxford handbooks, 2013). Web.
  3. ‘Arrests’ (, 2021). Web.
  4. ‘Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ (, 2021). Web.
  5. Home Office, ‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, (2018). Web.
  6. Home Office, ‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2018 to 2019’ (, 2019). Web.
  7. Onu v Akwiwu and another; Taiwo v Olaigbe and another [2016] IRLR 719 SC.
  8. Home Office, ‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2018 to 2019’ (, 2019) . Web.
  9. ‘Arrests’ (, 2021). Web.
  10. Citizens advise, ‘Racially and Religiously Motivated Attacks’ (, 2021). Web.
  11. Jenny Rees, ‘Black History Month: Expert Demands Justice Inquiry in Wales’ (BBC News, 2020). Web.
  12. Noah Uhrig, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Disproportionality in The Criminal Justice System In England And Wales (Ministry of Justice 2016).
  13. Jenny Rees, ‘Black History Month: Expert Demands Justice Inquiry in Wales’ (BBC News, 2020). Web.
  14. Noah Uhrig, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System in England And Wales (Ministry of Justice 2016).
  15. Noah Uhrig, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System in England And Wales (Ministry of Justice 2016).
  16. Rita Choudhury, ‘Race Relations Amendment Act 2000: A Response from a Shire County’ (2002) 21 Race Equality Teaching.
  17. Equality Act 2010. Web.
  18. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Web.
  19. Essop and others v Home Office (UK Border Agency) [2017] IRLR 558 SC
  20. Rita Choudhury, ‘Race Relations Amendment Act 2000: A Response from a Shire County’ (2002) 21 Race Equality Teaching.
  21. Lammy Review, ‘Racial Disparities In England And Wales’ (GOV.UK, 2018). Web.

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