The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer; a dreamer who undoubtedly believed in natural law. In the U. S., natural law theory has slowly been replaced by the theories of legal positivism and legal realism. In short, natural law theorists believe that a moral standard is built into the natural world by the Creator and that humankind therefore has moral standards that are universal for all peoples and in all cultures. The advocates of legal realism and positive law theorist believe that there are no moral standards built into the natural world and that humankind therefore has no universal moral standard that is valid for all peoples and in all cultures.
Thank God for someone like Dr. King, who held America's feet to the fires of its natural law-based legal documents: The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King told Americans that: "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
When Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote a letter to his fellow clergymen—those who disagreed with King's non-violent protest tactics—explaining to them why it was proper for Christians to disobey unjust laws. Dr. King told them:
"One may won ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat 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".
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. 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 .law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority."
Dr King is correct. And because he believed in natural law, in the Creator, and in Christ, he had a realizable dream of liberty, freedom, and justice for all, which offered him (and offers us) hope for the future. As Dr. King put it: "When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Only Christ can accomplish this kind of unity and it's only through God's Holy Spirit that humankind will be able to unite. This nation needs to re-embrace natural law theory. Law is not relative to people, place, or culture; the truths of the law apply to all people, equally. Dr. King knew that; and that's why some people hated him; because he was a learned man who wanted to change our society for the better and because he knew how to go about doing so, intellectually and militantly. People don't like change, and they especially don't like the human agents through whom that change so often comes.
The slogan, today, for the movement that Dr. King began is: "Keeping the Dream Alive"; but I would prefer: "Let's Start Making the Dream a Reality."