Letter From the Birmingham Jail

  It's Black History Month, and millions of children are studying the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But while plenty of kids can quote portions of King's "I Have a Dream" speech by heart, many of them don't know that Dr. King also penned one of the most eloquent defenses of the moral law that must undergird our nation's laws. In the spring of 1963, Dr. King was arrested for leading a series of massive nonviolent protests against the segregated lunch counters and discriminatory hiring practices rampant in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail King received a letter from eight Alabama ministers. These ministers were sympathetic to King's goals—but they said that King's unlawful methods of attaining them were wrong. They believed that King could achieve his goals without breaking the law, and they asked him to call off the demonstrations. King disagreed, and his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail explains why. "One may well ask," wrote King, "‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer "is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: just laws… and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws," King said, but "conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law, King wrote, "squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law… is out of harmony with the moral law." Then King quoted Augustine: "An unjust law is no law at all." He quoted Thomas Aquinas: "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law." King stood squarely in the middle of a long Christian tradition, and three decades after his death, Christians are still influenced by his legacy. For example, Christians who engage in civil disobedience at abortion clinics believe that a law permitting the murder of unborn children is unjust—and therefore not a valid law at all. Thus, we have the right—even the duty—to protest it. Remembering King's writings about natural law is especially relevant at a time when the U. S. Supreme Court is grossly overstepping its proper constitutional authority, in effect arrogating to itself alone the right to determine our laws. The Court considers itself accountable to no one—but King's letter is a timely reminder that there is indeed a transcendent law above the manmade law: the law of God. When man's laws are not backed by God's authority, the result can be tyranny. From the time of the Emperor Nero, who declared Christianity illegal, through the days of the American slave trade, from the civil-rights struggle of the sixties to our current battles against abortion and euthanasia, Christians have maintained what King maintained: It is wrong to obey laws that do not square with the laws of God. During Black History Month, let's teach our children that King's moral vision is what provided the scaffolding for his dreams—dreams, as the great civil rights leader put it, of "an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality."


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary