How Dr. King’s Words 50 Years Ago Explain How Chelsea Manning Expressed “The Very Highest Respect For The Law”

One day after the Obama Department of Justice asked a court to grant immunity to George W. Bush and senior officials in his administration for war crimes related to the Iraq war, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her role in leaking classified information.

As The Nation’s  Greg Mitchell noted, Manning’s revelations exposed everything from corruption in Tunisia to sex abuse in the Vatican to possible war crimes by the United States military. Yet Manning will be sitting in jail for years, as many of these crimes he revealed will go unpunished.

Some pundits were unsympathetic to Manning’s sentencing. “BREAKING: Betrayal of classified documents entrusted to you has serious legal consequences. #Shocker,” tweeted former Bush speech writer David Frum.

Yet the truth about Chelsea Manning is that she understood the consequences of what she was doing, and she did it anyway. It wasn’t a shock. In breaking the law to expose wrongdoing, Chelsea Manning stepped into the shoes of many who had committed civil disobedience before her.

In a week, the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington, considered by many to be the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Three years before that massive demonstration, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on Meet The Press to talk about why he preached nonviolent civil disobedience.

While King’s actions are considered sacrosanct today, at the time they were highly controversial.  One of the questioners that day , Lawrence Spivak, quoted the words of former President Harry Truman, a critic of law-breaking sit-ins: “Dr. King, the former president, Harry Truman, recently said this, and I quote, “If anyone came to my store and sat down, I would throw him out. Private business has its own rights and can do what it wants.”

King parried Truman’s words, but Spivak continued along the same line of questioning. “Don’t you think you would have more standing in your fight if you, yourself, if you called upon your people to live up to the law rather than to break the law and to risk jail in this sit-in?”

Another questioner, May Craig, followed up with similar questions: “Well, Dr. King, there have been court decisions saying that a storekeeper can select his customers. Are you saying that the end justifies the means and you’re apparently breaking local laws, hoping for a better conclusion?”

At this point, King, after running through the history of some Supreme Court cases, explained his theory of civil disobedience, “If you’re saying are we breaking laws because we feel that the end justifies the means, we feel that there are moral laws in the universe just as valid and as basic as man-made laws, and whenever a man-made law is in conflict with what we consider the law of God, or the moral law of the universe, then we feel that we have a moral obligation to protest. And this is in our American tradition all the way down from the Boston Tea Party on down. We have praised individuals in America who stood up with creative initiative to revolt against an unjust system.”

King returned to Meet The Press in 1965, and was once again buzzed with questions about why he was advocating civil disobedience. This is how he replied:

I do feel that there are two types of laws. One is just law and one is an unjust law. I think we all have moral obligations to obey just laws, on the other hand I think we have moral obligations to disobey unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. I think the distinction here is that when one breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust, he must do it openly, he must do it cheerfully, he must do it lovingly, he must do it civilly, not uncivilly, and he must do it with a willingness to accept the penalty. Any man who breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law.

Chelsea Manning broke the law for her conscience and accepted the consequences. “I understand that my actions violated the law. I regret that my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and my sense of duty to others,” said Manning’s lawyer in a statement from her in response to the sentencing.

Both King and Manning broke the law out of love, and were willing to face the consequences. King did so to stop segregated lunch counters and protest police brutality (and later fair wages and an end to a war). Manning did so to expose crimes like soldiers laughing as they killed innocent civilians.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington, it’s important for Americans to reflect on what King’s civil disobedience means for us today, whether it be the case of Chelsea Manning or many others in the world whose consciences drive them to break the law and face the consequences.

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