The National Catholic Register, April 5-11, 1998
'Free at last, thank God Almighty, I am free at last'
by Raymond de Souza
[PFL Note: The lessons contained in the teachings of Dr. King as
summarized in this article have critical importance for the pro-life cause.
Abortion distorts the meaning of freedom and corrupts true respect for the law.]
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 20th-century man. His
struggle for freedom against state-enforced oppression was the 20th-century
struggle. In this century the awful power of the state to do evil has been met
by the awesome power of peaceful resistance grounded in truth.
April 4, 1998, marked the 30th anniversary of King's assassination
and it is proper to remember his civil rights achievements. A few insist on
pointing out that he was a sinful man. But there is a broader lesson to be drawn
from King's reading of the signs of the times -- a lesson of particular interest
for Catholics in the post-conciliar era.
King knew he was living in the era of human rights and human freedom. The
main obstacle was state power wielded against its own people. The solution was
to overthrow unjust laws through peaceful protests. The force employed was the
power of witness to the truth about man. In this broad outline, King's movement
can be understood as a particular application of the general principles that
have increasingly informed the Church's social teaching since Vatican II.
On April 3, 1968, in Memphis, King delivered his most apocalyptic sermon. To
read it now is to marvel at the afflatus that moved him on the last night of his
"Like anybody I would like to have a long life. Longevity has its place. But
I'm not concerned about that," said King, reflecting on the threats to his life.
"I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But we as a people
will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight."
King's remarkable valedictory was full of gratitude for the times in which he
lived. His preaching cadences began that night with a provocative question and
answer. "If I were standing at the beginning of time, with a panoramic view of
the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, 'Martin Luther
King, which age would you like to live in?' I would turn to the Almighty and
say, 'If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th
century, I will be happy."'
"Now that's a strange statement to make," King conceded, "because the world
is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all
around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is
dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the
20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding -- something
is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they
are assembled today, the cry is always the same -- We want to be free."
In its great charter on the Church in our times, the Council taught, "Our
contemporaries make much of freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly so.
Authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man" (Gaudium
et Spes, 17). While warning against the misuse of freedom, the Church has
joined its voice, more in this century than ever before, to the cry of the
masses yearning to be free.
In the decree on religious liberty, the Council opened itself fully to this
growing cry, recognizing the increasing "sense of the dignity of the human
person" and, "the demand that constitutional limits should be set to the powers
of government, in order that there be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of
the person and of associations." The Council declares these desires "to be
greatly in accord with truth and justice" (Dignitatis Humanae,
The Council took note of and doctrine affirmed the spirit that animated
King's movement, and similarly inspired movements in other parts of the world.
The full flowering of this teaching would have to wait for Pope John Paul II and
the challenge to communism, but the Council Fathers provided here the
foundation. Just as it would be difficult to imagine a 19th-century King figure,
it would be difficult to imagine such Church teaching before the 20th century.
To adapt King's words, if the starlight of our times has been the focus on
human freedom, then the great darkness against which shines has been the
brutality of state power suppressing that freedom. About this phenomenon the
Holy Father wrote in 1991: "In the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the
principle that force predominates over reason was carried to the extreme. Man
was compelled submit to a conception of reality imposed him by coercion, and not
reached by virtue his own reason and the exercise of his own freedom" (Centesimus
Mutatis mutandis, that analysis can applied to examples not at the
extreme, such as American segregation or South African apartheid. "That
principle must be overturned," continues the Holy Father, "and total recognition
must be given to the rights of human conscience, which is bound only to the
truth, both natural and revealed. The recognition of these rights represents the
primary foundation of every authentically free political order."
The call to make power submit to the dictates of conscience was the heart of
King's philosophy of civil disobedience and protest. King recognized that state
power could never legitimately demand what conscience would not allow, and the
powers and principalities that so demand ceased to be legitimate. Operating in a
country that holds law in greatest esteem, it was incumbent upon King to argue
that conscience demanded that such laws should be disobeyed
This he did in his Letter from
Birmingham City Jail, dated April 16, 1963. Written while serving a
sentence for participating in civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, the open
letter was addressed to white clergymen who urged King not to inflame the civil
rights issue, but to wait until the initiative of the courts. Frustrated by
"white moderate who is more committed to 'order' than to justice," and who
prefers negative peace which is the absence of tension to the positive peace
which is the presence of justice, King explained why he could not obey unjust
Arguing passionately that his approach was rooted in the Christian tradition,
King turned to two doctors of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
"I would agree with St. Augustine," he wrote, that "an unjust law is no law at
"A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of
God," King further explained. "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony
with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law
is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law."
It is a centuries-old principle, but given particular application by King:
"Segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound,
but it is morally wrong and sinful."
If that sounds familiar to students of the recent Magisterium it should. Pope
John XXIII quoted the same passage of St. Thomas to make the same point in 1963.
"Authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently,
laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the
divine will, can have no binding force in conscience" (Pacem in terris).
Pope John's encyclical on peace, Pacem in terris, is dated April 11,
1963. It is testimony to the 20th-century Christian rediscovery of human dignity
and freedom that in the same week, the Pope from the Vatican and a Southern
Baptist preacher from his jail cell would remind their brethren that true Peace
can be found only where man is allowed the freedom to obey the truth he
recognizes by his conscience.
The struggle for that freedom is never easy. "We know through painful
experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be
demanded by the oppressed," wrote King. The lesson of our century is that the
oppressed can effectively demand their freedom without recourse to arms and
violence. The oppressed have the awesome power of truth on their side, and can
bring this to bear on the unjust law.
"One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a
willingness to accept the penalty," wrote King in Birmingham. "I submit that an
individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly
accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community
over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law."
It is not new to claim that the martyr is the true law-abiding citizen and
the true patriot. What the example of King and others teach is that the witness
of the oppressed, exercised insistently and creatively, has a power to bring
about change in a relatively short period of time. It is a witness born of
conscience and aimed at conscience -- the conscience of the oppressed giving
rise to the witness that enlightens the conscience of the oppressor.
The Holy Father's analysis of the overthrow of communism is apposite here:
"The events of 1989 are an example of the success of willingness to negotiate
and the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by
any moral principles. These events are a warning to those who, in the name of
political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena" (Centesimus
Vast possibilities for constructive change are created by those who refuse to
banish the Gospel spirit from public life. King's legacy can be understood as a
successful application of the recent social teaching of the Magisterium on the
centrality of human dignity and freedom in the political order. Indeed, King's
successful application of those principles may have contributed to their
recognition by the Magisterium, which must always be alert to the signs of the
In his last Sunday morning sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in
Washington, D.C., on Passion Sunday, four days before he died, King spoke about
the three great revolutions of his lifetime. He identified a technological
revolution, a revolution in warfare due to atomic weapons, and "a human rights
revolution, with the freedom explosion taking place all over the world."
George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Washington based Ethics and Public
Policy Center, quotes Oxford historian Sir Michael Howard to the effect that the
two great revolutions of the 20th century have been the Bolshevik revolution and
the transformation of the Catholic Church into the world's foremost defender of
human rights. On the one hand, a revolution in the service of state power, and
on the other, a revolution in the service of human freedom.
Malevolent state power and human freedom have been the principal opposing
forces of the century in which Martin Luther King would have chosen to live. For
him and so many other Christians, especially Catholics in the conciliar era, the
joy of the millennium will be to sing out, as he did in front of the Lincoln
Memorial in 1963, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
Racial Justice and the Pro-Life
Movement - Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail