As the nation takes off work and school for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Jan. 21, some will justly remember his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Delivered to hundreds of thousands of civil-rights supporters, that speech became the kind of cultural touchstone that comes to summarize a movement and sinks into society in a way that unites people.
It is for good reason that school children across the country will memorize parts of King’s great speech and deliver them to their classmates this month.
As great as that speech was, however, we seldom remember that King had suffered in a jail cell just a few months before it was delivered. He was in that cell for his role in organizing and participating in protests and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama. While in his cell, he was given a newspaper that included criticism of his methods written by eight fellow clergymen. He began his response in the margins of that very newspaper and continued it on other scraps of paper.
Though not currently as well known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is worth reconsidering today.
Law and Law-Breaking
In this open letter, King sought to justify his actions against those who counseled the civil-rights leader to go more slowly and obey edicts against protests, assemblies, and marches. What is most important today is his justification for breaking the law. King did what he was so good at doing—not reaching for abstractions or asserting subjective emotions, but attaching hopes for a better future to the best aspects of our inherited past.
Here, King particularly reached into the natural law tradition that unified so much of the Western experience before the rise of nihilism, subjectivism, relativism, and emotivism. In particular, he cited the work of the great thinkers and Catholic Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
According to Aquinas, there are four types of law—Eternal Law (God’s mind), Divine Law (revelation in sacred texts), Natural Law (the rational person’s knowledge of right and wrong), and Human Law (as passed by our lawmakers). Human law, in order to be considered a valid law binding on all subjects, must also cohere with natural law and divine law.
Racist laws, King argued, aren’t laws at all because they violate the moral edicts of natural law.
Several very important things come from this line of argument that we should remember today. First, King argued that, for him and other civil-rights leaders, it was just to break these laws because they were unjust and therefore not really laws at all—immoral laws are not truly laws.
Second, he argued that to be a just law, the powers making the law must hold themselves accountable to it as well as anyone else. We call this the rule of law and it is essential to any free society. No majority, Congress, president, governor, or bureaucrat can be “above the law.”
Third, he argued that, though immoral laws can be broken, they can’t be defied or evaded. That is, one who breaks an unjust law must do so “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” If you break an immoral law, you must subject yourself as a good citizen to be punished with the hope that your punishment might “arouse the conscience of the community.” Following these rules, King said, the observer is actually showing the highest form of respect for law itself.
Since it was written in 1963, however, much has changed in American culture. Some of those who would take up King’s banner have long ago rejected the Western tradition and, in particular, have abandoned the belief in absolutes, including natural law.
Our educators and much of society have fallen into a subjectivism, where each culture, each group, each individual is to decide for themselves what they “feel” to be right and what is wrong, and is free to act accordingly. This subjectivism, King’s lessons would teach us, leaves us relatively powerless to fight truly immoral laws. If all is subjective, then no laws are truly unjust. Or, perhaps it’s better said that, if all is subjective, all laws are unjust to someone. Neither formula would support true freedom under the rule of law.
As we commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this year, we should also remember his lesson that true liberty comes under the rule of law, and that law must cohere to the moral laws that govern the universe. Shallow subjectivism will not long serve true liberty, and mere emotionalism will not long prevail against actual injustice.
Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell chair in leadership at the University of Louisville, where he is also director of The McConnell Center. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including his young adult novels published as “The Remnant Chronicles.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.