Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Thomist

Today is the US federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the primary leaders of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ’60’s. He led protests and rallies of non-violent civil disobedience across the American South to overturn unjust laws protecting and promoting racial discrimination. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 for his beliefs and the success of his activism. As a result of the movement he led, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, ’65 and ’68 were passed into law prohibiting discrimination in employment, the exercise of voting rights, housing and access to education based on caste, creed, sex, race, religion, or nationality.

Of course, it is a stretch to label Dr. King a “Thomist” as he did not research, teach or write predominantly about St. Thomas Aquinas. But in one rather famous bit of writing, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he does cite St. Thomas’ notion of natural law rather insightfully, and gives, on the one hand, a very illuminating illustration of Thomistic principles, and on the other, a rational justification for civil rights activism and legislation.

During a period of activism and civil disobedience during known as the Birmingham campaign in April 1963, King was jailed for violating a court injunction against protests and demonstrations. He wrote his letter as a response to an open letter from eight white Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faith leaders, A Call for Unity, denouncing King and his direct action or civil disobedience tactics. As he is addressing faith leaders of different traditions to show the justice of his cause and methods, he cites Jewish and Protestant authorities (Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, respectively) in addition to Catholic ones (St. Augustine and St. Thomas).

But his invocation of St. Thomas is both accurate and eloquent. As King says:

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.

Despite the universality and objective character of the natural law, and the fact that Aquinas asserts that it cannot be forgotten or “abolished from the human heart” (ST I-II, 94, 6), he, nevertheless, recognizes that many people act as though they do not recognize this universal and objective standard of morality since they are inhibited by the influence of concupiscence or other passions, by an error of reasoning, or “by vicious customs and corrupt habits.” Indeed, as the third objection notes, there are whole societies which operate according to laws at variance with the natural law, declaring their departures as “just.” Aquinas responds that such laws abolish only the “secondary precepts of the natural law, against which some legislators have framed certain enactments which are unjust.” (ST 94, 6 ad 3). This nuanced understanding of the natural law, then, provides a standard for judging just and unjust laws. He makes this criterion of just laws explicit when he turns to the origin of human law.

Consequently, every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.”(ST I-II, 95, 2)

Aquinas, thus, seems to grant that whatever judges a system of human laws must stand outside and above that system. The laws of Nazi Germany which prescribed the execution of Jews and dissidents and forbade their protection constituted “crimes against humanity,” not because these laws were in violation of other laws of Germany, or the laws of France or the United States. The reason that the attempted destruction of the Jews was wrong was not even because the whole rest of the world thought it was wrong. The crimes of Nazi Germany could be judged as crimes because they were violations of a law that stands apart from and above the laws of every nation; they were violations of the natural law. Natural law, then, serves as the standard against which we determine whether human positive laws are just or not.

This is the same justification to which King appeals in order to show that segregation laws are unjust: not other laws of Alabama or of the United States, but the natural law as it is founded in human nature. Human nature demands a true sense of equality and dignity, and because segregation laws violate that equality and dignity, they are unjust. Segregation laws clearly diminished the dignity, and thus damage the personality of blacks in Alabama. Interestingly, King asserts that segregation laws were harmful to the white majority, distorting their proper dignity and damaging their personality as well. In both cases, segregation laws are an affront to human dignity, founded as it is in our common human nature.

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055).

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