Zoom in now on the photograph. Picture this man in jail. It is a narrow cell with dim light. You might imagine that he would stare at a dirty wall and do nothing. That is not the case. In fact, he sits on the bed and begins to write. First, he writes on the narrow margins of a newspaper and runs out of space. The man forages for more paper and finds scraps of writing paper. He keeps writing…and writing…and writing.
The man is Martin Luther King, Jr. and the date is April 12,1963. His “Letter Written in a Birmingham Jail” became an historic part of the American Civil Rights movement.
Not too long ago, my son gently challenged our family to reflect on how we have helped to build a more just society for all people. I named a few examples. I decided to dig more deeply and discovered Dr.King’s eloquent letter. I clicked on a link archived by Stanford University and listened to Reverend King read his letter. I was enthralled.
By way of background, Reverend King led a series of marches and sit-ins protesting segregation laws, racism, and violence against black citizens. He also protested in Birmingham, Alabama, at that time considered the most segregated city in the country. He was arrested and put in jail.
His letter reflects a deep a commitment to nonviolent direct action. Time after time, he quotes philosophers back to Socrates, the Bible, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, giving a clinic on the subject of justice. Laws fall into two categories—just and unjust. It is our moral responsibility to obey just laws. He then quotes St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
How are we to recognize a just law? He turns to Thomas Aquinas who wrote that laws must be rooted in both eternal and natural law. Just laws “uplift the personality”. Segregation fails to see the spark of divinity in every human being.
Dr. King continues:
“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 also warned that to reject nonviolent protests will lead to black nationalist ideologies that promote violence. We would then be living in “a national nightmare.” Sound familiar?
I sorely wish that we had leaders like Dr. King who took peaceful action against unjust laws. He certainly would not have approved of “taking a knee” in disrespect for this noble American experiment, this democratic republic envisioned by our forefathers, in which “all men are created equal”. Political correctness did not exist in his mind. The phrase had not been invented. He did not jump on ideological bandwagons. He had to think for himself. He had to read lengthy books and spend time in prayer. He had to risk being sprayed by firehoses, kicked, and beaten. Ultimately, he gave his life, struck down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
I listened to the voice of Dr. King and heard a voice of humility. I smiled at the conclusion of his famous letter. He apologized for the length, but mused, “what else can you do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail?”
I end this blog post in solidarity with Dr. King who ended his letter “Yours for the Cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”