I've noticed on this anniversary that I've never taken any time to say anything about Martin Luther King, Jr. on this little soapbox. I guess I'll start with a huge cliche:
Martin Luther King, Jr. is a personal hero of mine.
I became a fan of his in grad school for a lot of reasons. For the sake of limiting my cliches in this post, I'll limit my discussion to this one point that I don't hear so many people make about him.
I always knew of King as a voice against inequality, against war, and against prejudice and hatred, but it wasn't until graduate school that I had the opportunity to read any of his words aside from the few speeches everyone quotes. What I discovered was that people talk a lot about King's heart (and rightly so), but his mind was almost as extraordinary. His letter from a Birmingham jail was on the reading list of my theology class on Grace, alongside such names as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner and Martin Luther. That should tell you something about the quality of the man's thought. Among those names and those works, however, the clarity of King's thought and the strength of his voice was notable.
Notice, for instance:
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. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator 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.
Not bad for a guy writing from jail without access to his library, eh?