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INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENTS

In this article, William Allen sets out to provide the context, content and implications of civil rights in the American Constitutional tradition. He shows how civil rights have been understood to depend upon natural law by citing the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the writings of Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” as well as several Supreme Court decisions. These important documents indicate, not only that civil rights are concerned with the rights of a people to common or equal participation in civil society, but also that civil rights originate in the fundamental theories of natural law. It is because of this relationship between the positive laws that describe civil rights and the higher authority of the natural law from which they are derived that we discover both the central importance of the rights of ‘domestic society’ but also the grounds for legitimate civil disobedience. As the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes evident, the concern for civil rights cannot be divorced from a concern for the common good, for, in his words, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For King, injustice meant nothing less than the outright failure of a law to correspond to the natural law, or the law of God. To defend the civil rights of black people through civil disobedience in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, then, amounted to nothing less than a moral imperative. Civil rights, where correctly defined and upheld, secures for all the opportunity to common, equal participation in civil society that is necessary for living in accord with the law of nature.