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Essay: Martin Luther King Jr. Against Violence: How Our History of Trials Shaped Our Justice System

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  • Published: 25 February 2023*
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  • Words: 1,669 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)
  • Tags: Martin Luther King Essays

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“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”-Martin Luther King Jr.  Throughout our history, we have discovered a lot evidence towards acts of violence that targeted a variety of citizens. There are many famous trials that led to the impact of how we shaped laws and decisions of our criminal justice system. These laws and decisions that were made from these trial, allow our system to make the most fair and logical choices today. The Colonial period was one of the prime times where a lot of trials raised “red flags” and caused the changes that have been made. Some of the trials that stood out to me the most and that I thought had the most impact were the Salem Witchcraft Trials, the John Brown Trial, and the trial of Plessy vs Ferguson. All of these cases have a significant meaning towards how it has shaped our justice system today.

The Salem Witchcraft Trial is one of the most common and well known cases throughout history. The whole story began in 1692 with a group of nineteen men and women were accused of practicing rituals or practicing witchcraft, also known as the devil’s work. This group was claimed to be possessed by the devil. A man named Samuel Parris moved to Salem with his family and his Indian slave named Tituba. In February of 1962, Parris’s daughter, Betty Parris, suddenly became very ill. It wasn’t a cold type of sickness, she was dashing around, diving under furniture, screaming in pain, and complained about a fever. The causes of her sickness could have been a mixture of many things, but the only one that seemed to make sense was an explanation from a book called, “Memorable Provinces,” written by Cotton Mather. Her book pretty much described what was going on with Betty Parris and it led to the conclusion of witchcraft effects. The people of Salem believed that the Devil was near because of a war that happened about seventy miles away. Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn were the first three to be brought to trial for the accusation of witchcraft. Tituba suddenly became the main focus because she described a tall man from Boston that approached her; the man also appeared in the form of a dog or a hog. This man was obviously Satan, and he asked Tituba to sign his book and do his work. Tituba declared she was a witch and she also said that four other women, including Good and Osborn, were guilty of practicing the devil's work. This was when Parris and a few other ministers began to hunt aggressively for any other evidence of witchcraft in Salem. Once Tituba declared herself as a witch, the whole town of Salem feared the idea of witchcraft and feared that anyone could be affected. Over time, there began to be more and more cases and accusations of being affected by witchcraft or practicing it. The cases began to become overwhelming, so the establishment of a special court called, the Court of Oyer and Terminer, to decide on these trials. The accused that were found guilty or confessed, were sentenced to death or prison. The significance of this case is looked at as a lesson for the courts or the government. The importance of these trials has to do with the proper tasks of the government and religion in society and how it relates to the social structure of the people. Also, between all accused that were sentenced to death, were considered “unlawful,” so this has affected how our criminal justice system is today.

Another important case that shaped the way our justice system was the trial of John Brown. This trial was held in Virginia in 1859 and he was tried for treason against Virginia, for the murders of multiple men, and for trying to set slaves free. Brown was a committed abolitionist and was willing to live with and die for African Americans. Brown promoted a lot of ways to give African Americans opportunities to advance in society. For example, he attempted to start up a school for blacks and he tried to get his two hired African American employees to sit with him during church, which led to his expulsion from it. He also became a station master in the underground railroad and he hid slaves in his barn, allowing him to take them to the next northern station. When he revealed his plan for an insurrection of slaves, he stated that he was going to take twenty five men, sneak onto plantations, release the slaves, and guide them to the mountains for protection; eventually a black colony would form there. It would be awhile before he would have been able to put his plan into action, but in the meantime him and his sons traveled to Kansas because of the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska act. The Kansas-Nebraska act allowed people to decide whether or not to allow slavery on their property. Brown went there to do whatever he could to prevent the western territories from falling into pursuing the idea slavery. Southerner believed if Kansas were to use slavery, it would sort of fall into a domino effect causing the rest of the western territories to use it as well. They wanted to start driving antislavery settlers out of Kansas and the north saw the importance for the battle of equality; this led to anti-slavery activist to head towards the western territories and set up camps. With all the acts of violence and the disliking of abolitionists being in the Kansas territory, Brown decided it was time to take his first action by heading towards the Ottawa Creek with weapons and six men. Brown then broke into five men’s homes and taking them out in the woods and executing them, however he did not take part in the killings. Over the next couple years, Brown would take his group, known as the “Secret Six,” made efforts to continue to make Kansas a free state and while he was doing this, he was planning to invade Harper’s Ferry. The Secret Six was known as a movement for Transcendentalism which viewed slavery as an unmixed evil and placed duty to conscience above obedience to the positive law. Over time, Brown kept freeing slaves and kept recruiting some of them to build a small army. Brown decided to finally attack Harper’s Ferry and he gathered twenty one men to fight with him. Brown’s plan was going smooth until some of the slaves that he was freeing didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. It didn’t take long for the citizen soldiers to hear about the incident going on and once they arrived, the odds of Brown escaping were nearly impossible. Brown was then brought to Charles Town for his trial and was found guilty for all of his charges. He was sentenced to be hung on December 2nd in 1859. When his sentence was announced, only one man had clapped; this confuses me because I can’t tell if that man clapped because he looked at Brown as a hero or he clapped because he was pleased to hear that he was going to die. The significance of his raid on Harper’s Ferry was that it was one of the events that led into the Civil War. I think the significance of his trial was to show that his heroic acts didn’t go unnoticed because it was a huge contribution to the abolishment of slavery.

The last trial that I think has a lot of important significance to the impact of our criminal justice system is Plessy v. Ferguson case. This case involved an African American man, Homer Plessy, refusing to take a seat in a Jim Crow car, violating Louisiana law. This was a Supreme Court case that took place in 1896 even though the incident happened in 1892. Plessy argued that his constitutional rights were violated, but the court reject him stating that the state law “implies merely a legal distinction” between races did not conflict in the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments. This case was noticed to maintain state segregation laws in the setting of public facilities; during this time, the rule was “separate but equal.” When Plessy was brought to the judge, he had every intent to argue about his rights, but due to a seven to one vote from the Court, his argument did not conflict with the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments. The fourteenth amendment does state that citizens do have equality across the board in terms of political and civil rights, but not social rights. This means that, during this time, African Americans were allowed to vote or serve on a jury, but choosing which car to sit in doesn’t matter. The Court took victory on this case and another issue like this wasn’t brought up again until 1954. The significance of this case shows that there was more that needed to be done when it came to equality among the citizens. It was a huge improvement, but it did not solve the problem entirely. As I said before, African Americans only had political and civil right at this time and it technically does not give them the full and equal advantages a white citizen has.

There are many more cases that have a huge impact on the shaping of the justice system throughout history, but I feel these were some key ones that made a huge impact on our society. Through all of the choices, heroic figures, and actions, they are the reasons we have such a well organized and powerful justice system. All of the decisions the justice system makes today, are fair and well justified because of our past.

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