I was eight years old when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Along with the Vietnam War which was also raging, I was only vaguely aware of much of the civil unrest of the 1960s. Eight year old boys are insulated from much of the world’s turmoil and complexity; at the time, I was more interested in learning to hit a baseball.
As the years passed, I grew in my appreciation of Rev. King. So much so, that I actually think he is underappreciated by most Americans. It may sound odd to assert this, given that he has a national holiday named after him. I believe he is underappreciated because most Americans are aware of only a sliver of his life’s work. Most only know what they have seen replayed every year in the few seconds of video on television: the line or two from the I have a dream address on the Washington Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963. They know he was a civil rights leader and pioneer seeking to galvanize America to confront the injustice of racial segregation. What many don’t know about is the foundation of Rev. King’s moral vision.
Take this remarkable paragraph from his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, for example. King wrote this on Easter weekend in 1963 while he was in solitary confinement for leading non-violent protests against racial discrimination. He was seeking to respond to a public statement by some leading clergy calling for the protests to end.
“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 the eternal law 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. It gives the segregationist a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence, segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? 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.”
Isn’t that paragraph amazing? For one, he wrote that alone . . . in a jail cell. If I read that paragraph without knowing its author, I might have guessed St. John Paul II or Pope Francis.
Second, apply King’s lucid moral reasoning to today, not only to the current racial issues, but to the other civil rights issue of our day, abortion on demand. Replacing “abortion” for “segregation”, we get: “Abortion . . . substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.”
His explanation of the difference between just and unjust laws and the necessity of our man-made laws conforming to the “eternal law and natural law” stand as a ringing critique to the recent laws re-defining marriage and the subsequent Supreme Court Obergefell-Hodges decision. Likewise, the same could be said regarding other unjust laws affecting the human person, such as the death penalty, euthanasia, and in some instances, immigration.
Martin Luther King’s significance and force as one of America’s greatest figures was rooted not only in his Christian faith, but his appeal to moral truth. He saw that America could only be a great nation if it took the path of truth on the way to justice. He eloquently and effectively appealed to the conscience because he knew that the human conscience was made for truth. Looking back at that fateful night in Memphis when he was killed by an assassin’s bullet, we can only regret that America lost Martin Luther King, Jr. when we were about to need him the most.