Martin Luther King’s Response to “You Can’t Change the Heart Through Legislation”

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In light of a grand jury’s decision not to indict (even for second-degree manslaughter) the police officer who killed asthmatic and unarmed Eric Garner (1970-2014)—who literally had his hands in the air and whose final words were “I can’t breathe”—I think it’s helpful to be reminded of this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.

Well, there’s half-truth involved here.

Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.

But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.

So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

—Martin Luther King Jr.’s address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963.

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