by Diane Rufino, January 21, 2019
We remember Martin Luther King Jr. and his contributions to the Civil Rights movement today. I just heard that many members of the King family and the Kennedy family are requesting that an investigation be opened (re-opened) into the assassinations of JFK, MLK Jr, RFK, and Malcolm X. It would be about time we finally learned the truth about why these men were deemed too powerful or too controversial for their time and who arranged their assassinations. Anyway, when I taught government and politics, I stressed the writings of Martin Luther King. To phrase the civil rights movement for blacks as cashing in on a promissory note that had been denied them for too long was brilliant and perfect. I think his letters from a Birmingham jail are the most compelling. I read them and I wonder why it took so long (100 years) for society to treat black people with the dignity and equality they deserve. Equality was enshrined, by letter and spirit, in the Reconstruction era amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th), adopted in the years shortly after the end of the War of Northern Aggression, but it took a man like Martin Luther King Jr, with his charisma and passion, his intellect, his articulation of man’s injustice to his fellow man, and his call for peaceful protest that finally convinced national leaders to end the segregation that instinctively taught and reinforced that persons of different skin color were inherently different and unequal.
I’m glad God blessed Martin Luther King with the voice and the messaging, and the passion and fortitude to lead his people to the promised land. I just pray that we move forward from this current era where certain people and groups believe that everything you need to know about a person can be gleaned from his or her skin color. If people truly believe that, then much of MLK’s legacy is already forgotten.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I hope everyone will read the following excerpt from King’s letter from a Birmingham jail to understand the depths to which blacks were mistreated and burdened with second-class treatment. He wrote the letter, as an “open letter” to those who condemned his methods in protesting racial injustice. Reverend King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) coordinated with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to address the gross racial injustice in Birmingham, perhaps the most racially segregated city in the country, and together, on April 3, 1963, they organized marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation. They were, of course, non-violent. King’s movement was always about peace protest. On April 10, a circuit court judge issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” but King and the leaders of the ACMHR announced they would ignore the ruling. On April 12, King was arrested and throw in jail. What he didn’t expect was the reaction by various members of the clergy. While they agreed that social injustice existed, they argued that King and his movement were “extreme” and that the battle against racial segregation and the violation of voting rights should be fought solely in the courts and not the streets. On April 16, King wrote a long letter addressing those members of the clergy to defend his tactics and his movement of peaceful protest and civil disobedience.
Reverend King wrote:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
YOU express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are 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 when 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 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. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I – it” relationship for the “I – thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it.
King’s life was cut short, just as great men before him who dared to challenge the existing order and politics have been assassinated. We can only imagine what other great things he would have gone on to do and what other great writings he would have contributed.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day !!