On Monday, January 15, 2018 we celebrate “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.” Dr. King was assassinated nearly 50 years ago on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39. He was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights through nonviolent means and through civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. Dr. King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who used nonviolent activism to push for freedom in India and independence from British rule.
Dr. King attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He earned a B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College; a B.D. degree in 1951 from Crozer Theological Seminary where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class; and completed his doctorate degree from Boston University in 1955.
Dr. King followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father, serving as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia until his death in 1968. Some of the highlights in Dr. King’s leadership in the struggle for racial equality and justice in America include:
- 1955: Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.
- 1957: Southern Christian Leadership Conference is founded
- 1963: Campaign against racial discrimination and inequality in Birmingham, Alabama.
- April, 1963: Dr. King is arrested and jailed in Birmingham. He writes “The Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
- August, 1963: Dr. King gives his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
- 1964: Dr. King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; at the age of 35 he was the youngest person to have ever received the award.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Dr. King wrote his famous letter in response to a public statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama. They had called his civil disobedience and nonviolent protests “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King explained in detail why African-Americans were no longer patient to “wait” for justice and equality. They had waited for more than 300 years since being brought to America and denied their constitutional and God-given rights. How much longer would they have to wait to simply be allowed to sit with dignity on buses, to sit at a lunch counter for a cup of coffee?
In his plea for racial equality, Dr. King pens one of his most well-known lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
A Theology and Law Connection
Fellow clergymen had questioned and criticized Dr. King for his willingness to break laws. In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he notes that there are two types of laws: just and unjust, and emphasized that he and his followers obeyed the just laws; but felt they had a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
Drawing upon his theological studies, Dr. King cited St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He continued with reference to the great Roman Catholic theologian 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. …. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in J. Rieder, Gospel of Freedom (2016, p. 175).
Dr. King concluded the letter with a sense of humility, love, and hope: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (“Letter….” In Rieder, p. 185).
Our nation’s recognition and celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate. Dr. King represents the highest ideals and aspirations of this nation, despite all odds, obstacles, and barriers placed before him. We would do well to read his words, to remember his life, and pass along to our children the great legacy of this great American.
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.