Today is the national holiday that has been set aside to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A good way to honor his work would be to read and ponder what he left us in his writings.
One would be well served to read and meditate upon his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Written when he was unjustly imprisoned for marching in protest of segregation in Birmingham, this letter is a cogent summary of Dr. King’s beliefs about what the purpose of law. As he wrote, “there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”
He goes on to explain:
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 and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.
He further illustrates the distinction between just laws and unjust laws by pointing to two glaring examples of “legal” conduct that was manifestly unjust:
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.
Dr. King holds a belief that human law should be rooted in the natural law. That is something that the Founding Fathers believed. Conservative and libertarian views of law also have deep roots in this philosophy.
Justin Dyer, a political science professor, has written an interesting article that explores this issue further, and I’d recommend it to readers after they have finished Dr. King’s letter. Dyer ends his essay with this reminder of who Dr. King was:
… an imperfect man and a Christian pastor who, in the best tradition of American politics, fought for justice by appealing to a law higher than the state while respectfully and thoughtfully engaging his interlocutors on the principles of a just political order.
Too often there is a tendency to sanitize and simplify Dr. King’s message. Today gives us a good opportunity to really read his words and consider what he had to say at the time and continues to say today.