A good essay (not too long) this morning on the website Public Discourse.
I've read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" mentioned. It's a great defense and explanation for civil disobedience.
Hit the link for the entire essy.
A few months after Governor Wallace’s inauguration, a group of civil rights protesters, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., descended on Birmingham in a campaign of deliberate disobedience to the segregation ordinances of one of Alabama’s most racially divided cities. Images of peaceful protesters being sprayed with water hoses and attacked by police dogs soon galvanized the nation, and in April a group of white Alabama clergymen published “A Call for Unity” in a local newspaper, urging civil rights protesters to adopt a court-focused litigation strategy rather than taking to the streets in defiance of local law.
After King was arrested for parading without a permit, he took a moment, from the confines of his jail cell, to pen a response to his fellow clergymen and offer a justification for his resistance to segregation ordinances. Like any civically minded lawbreaker, King faced vexing moral and philosophical questions from the outset: how did he know whether a law was just or unjust, and when, if ever, was it morally permissible to disobey? In his now-celebrated “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” King’s answer was that “a just law is a manmade 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,” King explained, “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”
Those who praise the modern civil rights movement, but who also want to keep morality and theology absent from public discourse, seldom mention King’s reliance on natural law in his justly famous letter. Scholars such as the late John Rawls were at great pains to show how their thoroughly secularized theories of justice and public reason could make room for King, but in fact they could do so only at the cost of minimizing the seriousness of King’s argument. The son and grandson of Baptist preachers, King had studied the Western philosophical tradition while completing his doctorate in philosophical theology at Boston University, and his defense of civil disobedience drew from the work of Thomas Aquinas in particular.
Human ordinances, Aquinas argued in his Treatise on Law, can be contrary to the human good—and therefore unjust—by way of their end, author, or form. The first mode of legal injustice, according to this schema, is a law designed to bring about private gain at the expense of other members of the community. Otherwise benign laws can also be terribly unjust if made by someone without legitimate lawmaking authority or enforced in an illegitimate or partial manner. King, of course, had in mind Jim Crow laws when he spoke of legal injustice, but the concrete examples he marshaled in his letter followed the general contours of Aquinas’s natural law theory.
Following Augustine and Aquinas, King famously claimed that unjust laws were no laws at all. Rather, they were acts of violence and usurpations of law that damaged the human good and failed to instill a moral responsibility to obey.
King is of course the kind of historical figure that practically everyone wants to claim as his own. Reality, however, is often complex, and the truth about King is that his primary motivations, his most fundamental commitments—the very core of his thought—were rooted in a worldview repugnant to many of those who now claim his legacy. Despite his personal failings, many of which have come to light in the years since his assassination, we should remember King for who he was: an imperfect man and a Christian pastor who, in the best tradition of American politics, fought for justice by appealing to a law higher than the state while respectfully and thoughtfully engaging his interlocutors on the principles of a just political order.