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?
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)
Martin Luther King day is here again. For many, it’s simply part of a three-day weekend and, thus, a time to sleep in. For others, MLK day has become yet another day to shop till you drop. It’s also a day where we are privy to various snippets from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, played on loop and quoted by the most conservative pundits to the most liberal, although, quiet at it’s kept, he said many, many brilliant things.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a literature of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) course. Although I live in Alabama, a state filled to the brim with vital civil rights history, many of my students knew very little about the CRM, and even less about King, even though they all claimed that he was very important or even a personal hero. It was during that time that I really fully recognized how limiting political sainthood is. All my students knew who MLK was (or thought they knew), but the information they had received about him was so sanitized and incomplete that his words and philosophy were simply platitudes trotted out once a year to underscore that we had achieved his Dream. Imagine their surprise when they read about King’s anti-war stance, his thoughts on capitalism, and his emerging radicalism towards the end of his life. Take, for instance, King’s words just months before his death:
And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
“A Christmas Sermon” (1967)
King’s sermon is not a series of platitudes but an admonition for our own time. Indeed, it’s high time that we take our icons, our saints, off the pedestal and really heed their advice. Keeping MLK and others as distant, perfect leaders is really a cop out, a way to assuage our guilt at being “inadequate” heirs to the Movement, or to fool ourselves into thinking we’ve achieved some “post-racial” paradise, or to convince ourselves that the task of liberation is just too daunting. On this MLK day, I think that we owe it not only to MLK’s memory, but to the many forgotten foot soldiers of the CRM and Black Power Movement, to do more than recite sound bites or raise our fists in mock salute. We need to remember the richness, the complexity, the contradictions, and the power of black political struggles in the U.S. and across the Diaspora, and continue not only believing that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, but we must continue doing something about it–at home and in the streets.