Skip to main content

When a Law Is No Law at All: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Use of Augustine and Aquinas in the Battle Against Segregation

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Augustine in a Time of Crisis

Abstract

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s now-canonical “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” offers a theory of the authority of law to morally bind citizens that is grounded in the political philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas, thus signaling his intent to carry their tradition into the post-Enlightenment, democratic polity. Specifically, King relies on natural law as a means of explaining both why segregation is wrong and why civil disobedience is justified. King’s letter provides theoretical and practical guidance to those seeking an understanding of the moral obligations of citizens, and in doing so demonstrates both the continued relevance of Augustinian thought to modern politics and the continued relevance of natural law in a world dominated by positive law.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Chapter
USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
eBook
USD 129.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 169.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 169.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. 1.

    Anton-Hermann Chroust, “The Fundamental Ideas in St. Augustine’s Philosophy of Law,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 18 (1973): 57–79; see also Todd Breyfogle, Reading Augustine: On Creativity, Liberty, and Love and the Beauty of the Law (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), pp. 43–6; Ernest L. Fortin, “Justice as the Foundation of the Political Community: Augustine and His Pagan Models,” in Augustine and Modern Law, eds. Richard O. Books and James Bernard Murphy (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 118.

  2. 2.

    An important exception is international law. See Mary Ellen O’Connell and Caleb Day, “Sources and the Legality and Validity of International Law: Natural Law as Source of Extra-Positive Norms,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Sources of International Law, ed. Samantha Besson and Jean D’Aspremont (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 562–82.

  3. 3.

    The connection between Augustine and King is often mentioned but rarely explored in depth. Two exceptions include Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Timothy W. Burns, “Martin Luther King, Augustin, and Civil Disobedience,” in Andrea Radasanu, ed., In Search of Humanity: Essays in Honor of Clifford Orwin (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), pp. 151–64.

  4. 4.

    All citations to City of God are to Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977). Citations to On the Free Choice of the Will are to On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings, ed. & trans. Peter King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). We rely on Bettenson’s and King’s translations throughout.

  5. 5.

    Augustine adopts Cicero’s term for natural law , the “supreme law of reason” (FCW 1.6.15).

  6. 6.

    See Chroust, “St. Augustine’s Philosophy of Law,” Breyfogle, On Creativity, p. 141.

  7. 7.

    See E.J. Hundert, “Augustine and Sources of the Divided Self,” Political Theory 20 (1992): 86–104.

  8. 8.

    Political obedience in Augustine has caused much debate. Peter Burnell, “The Problem of Service to Unjust Regimes in Augustine’s City of God,” Journal of the History of Ideas 54 (1993): 177–88; Gerald W. Schlabach, “Augustine’s Hermeneutic of Humility: An Alternative to Moral Imperialism and Moral Relativism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 22 (1994): 299–330.

  9. 9.

    All citations to Aquinas are to Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 2, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945). We rely on this translation.

  10. 10.

    There are professed atheists who ascribe to natural law theory, those who assert its consistency with deism, and those who argue that it is more god-dependent than appears from within the natural law perspective. Michael S. Moore, “Law as a Functional Kind,” in Robert P George ed., Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 188–242; John Finnis, “Aquinas and Natural Law Jurisprudence,” in George Duke and Robert P. George, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 17–56; Micheal P. Zuckert, “The Fullness of Being: Thomas Aquinas and the Modern Critique of Natural Law,” Review of Politics 69 (2007): 28–47.

  11. 11.

    See Thomas W. Smith, “The Order of Presentation and the Order of Understanding in Aquinas’s Account of Law,” Review of Politics 57 (1995): 607–40.

  12. 12.

    Divine law is not a necessary aid to the human capacity to know natural law, reason, or make just human law (ST I-II Q. 91 A. 4).

  13. 13.

    See also Mary M. Keys, “Aquinas’s Two Pedagogies: A Reconsideration of the Relation between Law and Moral Virtue,” American Journal of Political Science 45 (2001): 519–31.

  14. 14.

    For example, in Obergfell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court analyzed natural rights during the founding era, but it cited a book with “natural law” in its title (135 S. Ct. 2584, 2635 (2015)). Zivotofsky v. Kerry, 135 S. Ct. 2076, 2099 (2015), and Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205, 221 (2007), follow similar patterns. See also McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 817 (2010) (Thomas, dissenting).

  15. 15.

    Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), pp. 6–10.

  16. 16.

    Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed, he was attacked after attempting to enroll his daughter in an all-white public school, and his church was bombed. Bruce Oppenheimer, “Martin Luther King, Walker v. City of Birmingham, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 26 U.C. Davis Law Review 791 (1993), at 802. On the freedom riders, see Oppenheimer, “Martin Luther King,” p. 799.

  17. 17.

    For more details, see Oppenheimer, “Martin Luther King,” p. 803.

  18. 18.

    Oppenheimer, “Martin Luther King,” p. 803. Local political considerations also played a role. See Adam Fairclough, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), pp. 75–6.

  19. 19.

    Oppenheimer, “Martin Luther King,” at 805. The injunction was the subject Walker v. City of Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307 (1967) (in which the Supreme Court ruled that once an injunction is issued, the parties must challenge it in court rather than by violating it). Practically, this decision meant that King had to return to Alabama to serve a sentence for contempt of court.

  20. 20.

    Fairclough, Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 78.

  21. 21.

    Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 168.

  22. 22.

    Fairclough, pp. 78, 79.

  23. 23.

    347 U.S. 483 (1954).

  24. 24.

    Citations to the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are to the version in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 1986).

  25. 25.

    King’s commitment to personalism is well documented. Rufus Burrow, Jr., Personalism: A Critical Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), pp. 218–20. Although the philosophy may be and often is framed in deist terms, one need not be deist to ascribe to the central tenet of all personalist philosophies, the intrinsic value of the human person. John H. Lavely, “What Is Personalism,” The Personalist Forum 7 (1991): 1–33.

Bibliography

  • Aquinas, Thomas. 1945. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 2. Edited by Anton C. Pegis. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Augustine of Hippo. 1977. Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans. Trans. Henry Bettenson. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2010. On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings. Trans. and ed. Peter King. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205. 2007.

    Google Scholar 

  • Breyfogle, Todd. 2018. Reading Augustine: On Creativity, Liberty, and Love and the Beauty of the Law. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483. 1954.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burnell, Peter. 1993. The Problem of Service to Unjust Regimes in Augustine’s City of God. Journal of the History of Ideas 54: 177–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burrow, Rufus, Jr. 1999. Personalism: A Critical Introduction. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chroust, Anton-Hermann. 1973. The Fundamental Ideas in St. Augustine’s Philosophy of Law. American Journal of Jurisprudence 18: 57–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fairclough, Adam. 1995. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Finnis, John. 2017. Aquinas and Natural Law Jurisprudence. In The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law, ed. George Duke and Robert P. George, 17–56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fortin, Ernest L. 2018. Justice as the Foundation of the Political Community: Augustine and His Pagan Models. In Augustine and Modern Law, ed. Richard O. Books and James Bernard Murphy, 117–138. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hundert, E.J. 1992. Augustine and Sources of the Divided Self. Political Theory 20: 86–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Keys, Mary M. 2001. Aquinas’s Two Pedagogies: A Reconsideration of the Relation between Law and Moral Virtue. American Journal of Political Science 45: 519–531.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1986. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington, 289–302. New York: Harper Collins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lavely, John H. 1991. What is Personalism. The Personalist Forum 7: 1–33.

    Google Scholar 

  • McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 817. 2010.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller, Keith D. 1992. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore, Michael S. 1992. Law as a Functional Kind. In Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Issues, ed. Robert P. George, 188–242. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • O’Connell, Mary Ellen, and Caleb Day. 2017. Sources and the Legality and Validity of International Law: Natural Law as Source of Extra-Positive Norms. In The Oxford Handbook of the Sources of International Law, ed. Samantha Besson and Jean D’aspremont, 562–582. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Obergfell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584. 2015.

    Google Scholar 

  • Oppenheimer, Bruce. 1993. Martin Luther King, Walker v. City of Birmingham, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail. U.C. Davis Law Review 26: 791–833.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schlabach, Gerald W. 1994. Augustine’s Hermeneutic of Humility: An Alternative to Moral Imperialism and Moral Relativism. Journal of Religious Ethics 22: 299–330.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, Thomas W. 1995. The Order of Presentation and the Order of Understanding in Aquinas’s Account of Law. Review of Politics 57: 607–640.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Walker v. City of Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307. 1967.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zivotofsky v. Kerry, 135 S. Ct. 2076. 2015.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zuckert, Micheal P. 2007. The Fullness of Being: Thomas Aquinas and the Modern Critique of Natural Law. Review of Politics 69: 28–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michelle M. Kundmueller .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Kundmueller, M.M., Castle, J.J. (2021). When a Law Is No Law at All: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Use of Augustine and Aquinas in the Battle Against Segregation. In: Kabala, B.Z., Menchaca-Bagnulo, A., Pinkoski, N. (eds) Augustine in a Time of Crisis. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61485-0_3

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics