Martin Luther King Jr. was born 80 years ago today. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail he agreed with St. Thomas Aquinas that an unjust law is no law at all and outlined several methods on how to challenge unjust authority.
Following Aquinian principles of justice, he wrote: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
It’s hard to find any sensible criticism to this simple definition of — and challenge to — injustice.
Yet today, more than 700 years after Aquinas’ words and 41 years after King’s, society still requires reflection on this indispensable ethical theory.
King is due respect for not only his eloquence and vision but the manner in which he conducted the civil rights movement. In the face of racism, brutality and aggression, he never once condoned violence.
Non-violent civil disobedience was a central tenant of the civil rights movement and was paramount in garnering widespread recognition and respect for King and other leaders in the movement.
Recent Oakland riots were sparked by the New Year’s Day shooting and subsequent death of Oscar Grant at the hand of a police officer.
During a news conference, Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson said, “I am begging the citizens to not use violent tactics, not to be angry. Oscar would not want to see all the violence going on.”
In Greece, 2,000 demonstrators tried to stage a peaceful rally against Israeli attacks in Gaza last month. However, a few masked renegades stockpiled firebombs and attacked riot police. Christos Markoyiannakis, Greece’s new deputy interior minister, promised “zero tolerance” for crime. However, a police officer was shot in another riot Jan. 5.
The rioters should look to King’s message. People seem to have forgotten other ways to express dissent, such as sit-ins, boycotts and marches.
Violence is never civil and certainly can never be said to uplift the human personality. When civil disobedience turns violent, it violates the same principles of justice that inspired it.
Continuing to appeal to civility while keeping true to one’s convictions is perhaps the most efficient way of affecting social justice.