MLK: ‘A Just Law is a Man-Made Code That Squares With the…Law of God’

Terence P. Jeffrey | August 28, 2013 | 2:28pm EDT
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The Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., being arrested for marching without a permit on Good Friday 1963, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo)

( - Today, Americans are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

But while “I Have a Dream” is King’s most-famous speech, his most famous written work is most likely his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote earlier in 1963, after he had been arrested on Good Friday for marching to protest segregation in Birmingham, Ala.--in violation of a state court order prohibiting such marches.

King's letter responded to a group of clergymen who questioned why he engaged in this type of civil disobedience.

In his explanation, King cited St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in arguing that a just law is a law that squares with the law of God, and an unjust law is one that does not.

“One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” wrote King. “The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. 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? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?” wrote King. “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.”

“Thus, it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong,” wrote King.

“I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out,” he said. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

This was at the height of the Cold War, and King argued that people then living in countries governed by Communists had the same right to disobey unjust laws.

“If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws,” he said.

King was a Baptist minister. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were Roman Catholic priests.

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