Long Live the King

I’ve been expecting the day would come when the identity politics Left would turn on Martin Luther King Jr, and that day has arrived. Students at the University of Oregon (and surely elsewhere) are demanding that one of King’s most famous phrases, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” be taken down from a wall display in the student center because it is “not inclusive enough.”

Just wait until they read his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”!! I have made it a practice to use King’s most famous writing on the first day of many of my classes (especially on the Constitution and constitutional law), as it serves as a wonderful disorientation for the liberal students. Especially this passage:

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”

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.

The fun part here is that the suggestion that right and wrong can be determined from reason, derived from nature (including human nature), strikes at the heart of today’s post-modern liberalism, which holds that objective moral judgment is impossible, because it would constrain the Left’s will to power. (Mentioning “natural law” on most college campuses today is like flashing garlic to a vampire.) Playing out the implications of King’s thought to college students is great mischievous fun, as you can see liberals, who know they are supposed to revere King, squirm uncomfortably in their seats. And then I lay Frederick Douglass on them. . . (My black students especially sit on the edge of their seats when I walk through Douglass’s famous “Freedman’s Monument” speech, where he begins by saying that Lincoln was “the white man’s president,” but then lays out his larger argument about why Lincoln was a great man whom everyone—whites and blacks—should honor. It’s the first time some students have heard a reason why they should think well of their country.)

I’m not sure whether many liberals teach King in their classrooms (ditto Frederick Douglass), though it is interesting to note the flurry of stories this week about the Open Syllabus Project, which reveals what are the leading books assigned at universities. (Good grief, what is the matter with Brown?) At Harvard, King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is the most frequently assigned reading. It doesn’t turn up at all on the top ten list at any other university on the list. Of course, who is teaching it and how makes a big difference. A leftist or a mediocre professor (but I repeat myself) can mangle even Shakespeare or the Federalist Papers if he wants to. But the frequency of King’s “Letter” on Harvard syllabi is a potential plague bacillus against liberalism, to any student who reads it with care.