Brothers Judd posted this one:
"Natural Law from a Birmingham Jail" (Catholic Educational Resource Center)
On April 12,1963 – Good Friday – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a group of about 50 anti-segregation protesters into downtown Birmingham, Alabama. It was a peaceful protest, but they were not naïve: They knew that their message would offend and cause problems. King was not surprised when they were all arrested.
Eight white clergymen from Birmingham, including a Catholic bishop and a rabbi, wrote a letter appealing to the black population to stop such demonstrations. These clergymen were not bigots; they just did not want the kind of confrontations that King had provoked. They wanted to let the courts work toward integration. Their letter was published in the local newspaper under the title, "A Call for Unity."
King's response to the clergymen, his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," was one of the finest modern appeals to natural law. In it, he wrote: "I would agree with St. Augustine that, an unjust law is no law at all." Moreover, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."As such, "One has . . . a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
King's analysis, of course, raises the question of how to determine whether a law is just. Here, King turned to natural law. He explained: "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." He then looked to St. Thomas Aquinas: "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law." Applying that to the case at hand, King explained: "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."
Directly responding to the clergymen, King wrote: "In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?" After providing some examples, he explained his problem with the suggestion that they should wait for the courts to act: "It is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber."
King explained that "oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained."
King said that a change had come in his way of thinking: "I have tried [in the past] to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends." Thus, the legal system, while "moral" in and of itself, was at that time in history protecting the immoral system of segregation.
What seems odd is that it is now obligatory to admire Martin Luther King, yet most people do not admire contemporary civil disobedience. But this is not really new. It seems like people have always admired those who defied authority in the past, yet disdain those who defy authority in the present. It seems to me that Jesus meant something like this when He said: "You build the tombs of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. In fact, you bear witness that you approve the deeds of your fathers; for they indeed killed them, and you build their tombs" (Luke 11:47)-- although I'm not sure I quite understand this saying. Anyway, Martin Luther King's position is a valuable reminder to those who (profess to) disbelieve in natural law.