I honestly feel that with the world currently being the way it is, the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. are more important to our current society than ever. Today made me think about the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which may be right behind the “I have a dream” speech as one of King’s most famous and important writings. I thought about it because of that famous line about just and unjust laws:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
This still rings true today. We may not have laws that are explicit in their racial connotation (i.e., no laws that say white people can do something that black people can’t), but there are plenty of laws that overtly do this. Take, for example, voting laws in many states that don’t explicitly outlaw minorities from voting, but aim to make it more difficult to vote by adding requirements that are harder for minorities to meet. Also consider laws that are designed to limit abortions by making it harder for doctors to perform them by adding draconian stipulations on what make a clinic pass muster. Hell, even think about the process in which prosecutors hide from having to indict a white police officer for killing a minority by hiding behind a grand jury. What you have is what King described succinctly:
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
That was America 50 years ago. And it’s still America today. We can claim to be more enlightened about things all we want, but we’re not. Almost all of us revert back to these ingrained ways whether we know it or not. It’s not because we’re bad people, per say, but it’s just human nature, for better or for worse.
There is also this:
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
No one should let the role that the church did and did not play in the Civil Rights struggle, because I think it’s still valid today. I don’t think that these problems have gone away. In fact, the church is one of the last places that there is vociferous opposition to gay marriage, which is as much of a Civil Rights issue today as race is. It becomes very easy to hide behind the cloth in the defense of the status quo.
I think that what I am trying to say is that what Martin Luther King Jr had to say and what he did are just as important now as they were 50 years ago. We need to remember less for what was accomplished as much as what remains to be accomplished and what we have given back over this time. Every time a person of color is denied their rights, we need to remember. Every time a white cop thinks its defensible to shoot an unarmed black man without fear of retribution, we need to remember. Every time a woman loses her right to choose what is best for her body, we need to remember. Every time a gay person cannot experience the same joys of matrimony that their straight counterparts can, we need to remember. In this day and age, memory is power. And if we remember well enough, we might get to that mountaintop yet.