On this celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., it is worth re-reading one of his most famous letters – the Letter from Birmingham Jail. First published in the Atlantic, they republished it today here.
One thing a re-reading will show is that the contemporary appropriation of MLK has banished the moral foundations which he himself saw that as necessary for morally justified civil disobedience. MLK Jr appeals, in almost every case, to the natural law. He specifically cites St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas in this letter on the natural law, as he defends his civil disobedience by explaining that the segregation laws are unjust – precisely because, and indeed only because, they violate the eternal and natural law.
Something else I find noteworthy. When I learned about Martin Luther King Jr in school as as child, he had been completely secularized. That he was a Christian preacher was a historical footnote. It is clear from reading this letter (and indeed all of his works), that MLK did not see his Christianity as a footnote. Quite to the contrary, his whole work followed from his Christian calling, and it is in explicitly Christian terms that he understood all of his own work.