By: Tony Williams
Most everyone knows Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I wrote about here on its fiftieth anniversary last August. The March on Washington and King’s famous speech had a singular impact upon the Civil Rights Movement and passage of the Civil Rights Act. The “I Have a Dream” speech was profoundly shaped by American founding constitutional principles.
As important and brilliant as the “I Have a Dream” speech was, the lesser-known “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was perhaps an even more profound examination of the principles of constitutionalism and justice.
In early 1963, King and the movement were faltering after a failed campaign in Albany, GA, to raise awareness of the injustice of segregation. The leaders of the movement decided strategically to make Birmingham, AL, a showcase of injustice with the reaction of a virulently racist police chief.
Mass demonstrations and arrests soon followed. Pretty soon, the infamous police dogs and fire hoses were loosed upon the demonstrators. King, himself, marched in defiance of the local authorities and shared a prison cell with his fellow marchers. King proceeded to pen a letter explaining his breaking of the law banning the demonstrators from marching as well as explain to the white ministers who opposed his direct action campaign why he could not follow their counsel to “wait” for justice.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a logical and philosophical masterpiece of persuasive writing and is profoundly rooted in the traditions and thinkers of Western civilization. King writes that blacks “have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” He starts by appealing to the pathos of the readers recounting many terrible injustices suffered by southern blacks from the “stinging darts of segregation.”
King addressed the fact that people were legitimately concerned that King and other leaders were breaking the law “since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools [Brown v. Board of Education]. How can King advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? His answer is that “there fire two types of laws: just and unjust.” King is a firm advocate of the moral responsibility of obeying just laws for order in civil society. However, he argues that, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He then quotes the great Christian authority, St. Augustine, that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Like a good philosopher King sets about defining his terms “just” and “unjust” to prove his case about following them. A just law, King writes, is a “man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” The unjust is “out of harmony with the moral law.” King assumes, like the Founding Fathers, that there was a natural law of right and wrong given to humans by the Creator. For support for this natural law philosophy, King refers to the great Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas, who held that an unjust law is “’a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.’”
King provides further elaboration by positing that just laws uplift the human person while unjust laws “distort the soul.” Just laws are rooted in human equality as in the words of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”), while unjust laws give a false sense of superiority and inferiority. King uses the terminology of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, arguing that unjust laws are based upon an “I-It” relationship rather than an “I-Thou,” treating people as things rather than persons with dignity. In language that might seem out of place in today’s politics, King went so far as to say that segregation was not only “politically, economically, and sociologically unsound; it is morally wrong and awful.” Indeed, he writes that segregation is an example of man’s “terrible sinfulness.” Finally, the unjust segregation laws were inflicted upon a minority with no vote in creating the laws and thereby passed without consent, violating American principles of republican self-government. He quotes from St. Paul, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln to support the ideal of justice.
King rejects the argument that his belief in breaking unjust laws would lead to anarchy. “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” he writes. “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.” He refers to other examples of those who were persecuted for disobeying the laws of the state including Socrates, Jesus, the Christian martyrs, and the members of the Boston Tea Party.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a document that argued for justice deeply rooted in the Western and American traditions. King agrees with James Madison, who wrote in Federalist #51 that, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained.” In a state where the strong majority oppressed the weak minority, “anarchy may as truly be said to reign.”
King anchored the Civil Rights movement in American principles of liberty and self-government. “One day,” King wrote, the world will note that the Civil Rights demonstrators were “standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of four books including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.