When the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was thrown in jail in Birmingham, Ala., on Good Friday 1963, for marching to protest that city’s racist segregation laws, he wrote a letter in which he explained the moral and religious foundation of law itself.
Citing the Catholic saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, King, a Baptist clergyman, said that a just law is one that comports with the law of God and an unjust law is one that doesn’t.
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws,” King wrote. “This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws.
“One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’” King continued. “The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
“Now, what is the difference between the two?” wrote King. “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
The Declaration of Independence, which invokes the “Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,” roots the founding of America in the same principle that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., rooted the Civil Rights Movement.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” says the Declaration. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King affirms his belief that the Civil Rights Movement was based on the same values and principles as the founding of the United States—and that the Civil Rights Movement sought to redeem those values and principles in any area of American life in which they had too long been violated.
“One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” said King.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was right--and the principal that he articulated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail needs to be restated and reaffirmed in America today—and returned to the center of our debates over the actions of government.