The Forgotten Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated each January, the emphasis often falls on his I Have a Dream speech.[1] He delivered that inspiring and historically important speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, to roughly a quarter million participants in the March on Washington.  In it, he envisioned an America that would be free of racism and injustice, a nation that would value character over color and unity over division.

But there was much more to Dr. King than the memorable Dream speech.  From 1955 until his assassination in 1968, he led a nonviolent movement to end legal segregation. Yet those peaceful demonstrations got him in trouble with authorities in some southern states, and he found himself repeatedly under threat.  He was assaulted several times, his home was bombed, and he was arrested over 20 times.

On April 12, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, he marched in the Good Friday parade against racial segregation, defying a judge’s injunction against parades and demonstrations.  Dr. King, along with several other prominent civil rights leaders, was arrested and jailed for participating in the parade without first obtaining the required permit.  That same day, a local newspaper published a statement signed by eight white Alabama clergymen, sometimes known as “A Call to Unity,” in which those signers acknowledged the need to resolve racial injustice but called the demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” The clergymen urged law enforcement officials and the community at large to act with calm and restraint “to protect our city from violence[,]” and they concluded by asking “our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and . . . to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”[2]

Four days later, on April 16, while he remained incarcerated, Dr. King wrote an open letter responding to those eight white Alabama clergymen and their criticism of his efforts to speed up the process of ending legally-entrenched racism.  His Letter from a Birmingham Jail[3] has justly become famous and has been included in many college anthologies, including at least two I have used in teaching Ethics.

I want to focus on a portion of that letter where he explains the basis for his civil disobedience.  It’s there for everyone to read, but I don’t hear people mention it during memorials to Dr. King and his work.  It is so often overlooked that it may be fair to characterize this as a forgotten part of his legacy.  In essence, Dr. King says that civil justice rests upon the eternal law of God.  The following excerpt appears about a third of the way into that letter:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.  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, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.  One may want to ask:  “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”  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?  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.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Those paragraphs evoke the question that many of my students have raised: “Who am I to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?”  But such an attempt to avoid sounding self-righteous represents a relativistic attitude toward truth and morality that quickly collapses into nihilism.

If we are unable or unwilling to say what’s right and what’s wrong, then why should anyone have bothered to support the civil rights movement in the 1960s or even to support the abolitionist movement a century earlier?  If we can’t find the basis for deciding between right and wrong, then why shouldn’t we start having slavery again?

Answers to such relativism or nihilism come in various forms, including an appeal to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people or to some universal rule based on reason.  But those theories don’t provide an adequate basis for eliminating racism and injustice, and Dr. King knew that.  Without God as the ultimate authority, every other basis for morality fails.  Many wrongly claim God’s approval for their own opinions or misdeeds, including acts of hatred.  But that is no reason to abandon our trust in God.  It is, instead, a reason to question the trust that we place in men.

God has made himself and his law known to us.  It is up to us to follow it.  We are to love God first and then to love our neighbors as ourselves.  When Jesus was asked who counted as a neighbor—i.e., who we really are obligated to love—he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which addressed the same underlying issue of Us vs. Them that supported slavery and racial segregation.  Christ showed us that we are to love each other without regard to racial distinctions.  Many of us began learning this message when, as children, we were taught to sing this song:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

—Clare Herbert Woolston

That children’s song innocently expresses the same sentiment underlying Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his subsequent Dream speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Our society and laws should rest on morality and love for each other, which in turn rest on God’s eternal law as revealed through Scripture and in Christ.

When we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., we often think of him simply as an activist for civil rights and we forget the basis for his action. This year and hereafter, let us remember that the foundation for Dr. King’s work was the eternal law of God.  That is a legacy that should never be forgotten.

© Robert W. Higgason

Originally published 01/16/2014 on Thinking About Christianity.

Revised 01/10/2018.






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