ON APRIL 16, 1963, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., authored his famous letter from his cell in the Birmingham City Jail. He was confined there after being arrested for planning a non-violent protest against racial segregation by the City of Birmingham, Alabama, and its downtown retailers. King was arrested by the Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Connor, for parading without a permit, and spent 11 days in jail. The letter was in response to a statement ("A Call for Unity") made by white Alabama clergymen who advised that the civil rights movement should focus on the use of judicial means to correct injustices, and not street demonstrations. The letter, based upon traditional notions of Natural Law, includes such unforgettable lines such as: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everyhwere." In the letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes St. Augustine of Hippo's Dialogue On the Free Choice of the Will (De Libero Arbitrio, Book 1, section 5 (188.8.131.52): Nam lex mihi esse non videtur, quae iusta non fuerit. ("For a law that is unjust does not seem to me to be a law at all"). Dr. King also makes reference to St. Thomas Aquinas and his teaching on the Natural Law, which is a direct reference to the so-called "Treatise on Law," that is, Questions 90-97 of the Prima Secundae (Part I-II) of his Summa Theologica.
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One may well 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.
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For a copy of the "Call to Unity," to which Dr. King replied, click here.
For a copy of the full text of Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, click here.
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