Civil rights and Dr. King

By Kenneth J. Collins

A year after President John F. Kennedy called out the troops to quell the riots surrounding James Meredith – the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi – the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested on April 16, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. Growing up in a Baptist church in which his father was a pastor, King learned early on that the Christian faith is a universal religion that transcends race, ethnicity, gender, social class, or cultural origin.

During the time he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, King began to think deeply about social justice issues and became acquainted with the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), especially his Christianity and the Social Crisis. Though King found much to his liking in social gospel thought, he differed from Rauschenbusch and others whom he believed came “perilously close to identifying the kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system – a temptation which the church should never give into.”

While he was in prison, King penned a letter (”Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) that not only revealed why he and the civil rights movement could no longer wait (”justice too long delayed is justice denied”), but it also argued for an understanding of justice that was well-rooted in both moral philosophy and the Christian faith. Appealing to the writings of Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), King maintained that the laws of many southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, were invalid because they were out of harmony with the natural law and the eternal law that is above it. Put another way, such laws failed to accord to black Americans those benefits and prerogatives that pertain to them precisely as human beings. “An unjust law,” King wrote in this letter, “is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This difference is made legal.”

Having a theoretical basis for distinguishing an unjust law from a just one, King developed a sophisticated distinction between the legal and the moral, a distinction that several evangelicals at the time were reluctant to acknowledge. In this line of reasoning, some laws may be on the books, so to speak, but because they deny basic human rights to a sector of the population, such laws must be deemed immoral. Or as King himself put it, a law so construed is necessarily unjust for “it does not square with the law of God, so for that reason it is unjust and any law that degrades the human personality is an unjust law.”

So then, part of King’s strategy to further the civil rights of black Americans was to challenge such unjust laws through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, a tactic he had learned from Gandhi. Such civil disobedience always upset the law-and-order crowd, who argued in terms of respect for the law of the land above all, or at best they championed gradual, less disruptive forms of change. To this and similar objections, King replied, “And I submit that the individual who disobeys the law, whose conscience tells him it is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty by staying in jail until that law is altered, is expressing at the moment the very highest respect for the law.”

Though the strategy employed by King invited criticism from evangelicals and others, there was a genius in his method of wedding a natural law critique of unjust state laws to non-violent civil disobedience. If King had promoted violence in a struggle to address injustices, then the inevitable police crackdown would have hardly evoked sympathy for the movement. “They got what they deserved,” would have been the quick, almost unthinking reply. But King did something very different. His goal, of course, was to demonstrate that the legal sometimes is immoral because the state has simply codified the all-too-common prejudices of the majority. In order, however, to get the average American to hear this plea of injustice, King had to break through the normal social filters such as a concern for law and order that would most often cut off any sympathetic response in its tracks.  King, however, would eventually get the ear of the American people through a strategy of nonviolence coupled with his generous moral concern.

The stage was set the following month in May 1963, for a heroic contest between nonviolent civil rights protestors who had God’s moral law on their side and Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama, who had his dogs and police. TV cameras caught the graphic violence of Conner’s directives. Black activists were smashed into storefronts by hoses, pummeled by the billy sticks of cops, and bitten by attack dogs as they patiently suffered for their cause.

Americans, indeed the world, looked on this spectacle in horror as the cameras rolled. Ironically enough, the law and order argument was being turned on its head and Conner’s lackeys now appeared to be shameful as new heroes were being born. Moreover, a fund of sympathy, wide and deep, was evoked that day for King’s cause. Such an identification, sustained by strong emotion, represented nothing less than the illuminating grace of God breaking through, a grace that darkness and hatred could by no means overcome.

And so while neo-evangelicals were positioning themselves between fundamentalism and liberalism, as they were preoccupied with fighting communism and developing a unified cultural voice, the actions of King demonstrated a much different kind of power. Not that of coercion and force, but one that, remarkably enough, refused to speak the language of Babylon.

Kenneth J. Collins is Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Taken from Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism by Kenneth J. Collins. Copyright(c) 2012 by Kenneth J. Collins. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

For this article, the quotes from Dr. King are found in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

Photo of Dr. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-122982.