Civil Disobedience The Ideas Of Thoreau And

Civil Disobedience, The Ideas Of Thoreau And Dr. King Essay, Research Paper

Throughout the history of the United States, there have been many times when citizens have felt the need to revolt against their government. Such cases of revolt took place during the times of Martin Luther King Jr., and Henry David Thoreau. The reasons for these revolts included discrimination against the African-American community and Americans refusing to pay poll taxes to support the Mexican War. These two men used civil disobedience to change people’s ideas and beliefs to stop the injustice brought against them and their nation. Civil Disobedience is defined as refusal to obey civil laws or decrees, which usually takes the form of direct action (Grolier’s Encyclopedia Online). People practicing civil disobedience break a law because they consider the law unjust. They want to call attention to its injustice, hoping to bring about its withdrawal.

Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” in 1849, right after spending a night in the Walden town jail for refusing to pay a poll tax for the Mexican War. He recommended using direct action to create social tension, thus leading to the reform of unjust laws practiced by the government. He voiced civil disobedience as, “An expression of the individual’s liberty to create change” (Thoreau 530). Thoreau felt that the government had established order that

resisted reform and change. “ Action from principle, the perception and performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary”(Thoreau, 531).

Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax because the money was being used to finance the Mexican War. Not only was Thoreau against the war itself, but the war was over Texas, which was to be used as a slave state. His friend, Staples, offered to pay the tax for him, but to Thoreau, it wasn’t paying the tax that he was objecting to, it was how the money would be used. Thoreau felt strongly about paying money toward a war he did not support. He would rather end up in jail than go against his will. The passage, “Your money is your life, why should I haste to give it my money,?” (Thoreau, 538) illustrates how strongly he felt. It was very important to Thoreau to inform the public about the war. He wanted people to realize why it was wrong to support it. Thoreau never rallied hundreds and thousands of people together, violently or nonviolently, to get reactions. Instead, he went to jail to protest and wrote his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau’s philosophy was to get people to think and take their own approach to a situation.

Many years after Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the same idea of direct action to protest the injustices brought upon black Americans in the United States. King used peaceful sit-ins and rallies to unite the black community. Blacks were forced to sit in the back of the busses, use separate bathrooms, water fountains, spaces in a restaurant, and schools. Segregation made blacks feel inferior and unequal. King led many black protesters in using methods such as boycotting buses, sit-ins, and various marches. These non-violent acts of public speech and action eventually lead to King’s arrest for leading a march in Birmingham, Alabama.

While being held in Birmingham City Jail, King wrote, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to his fellow clergymen. This letter expressed, to a great extent, how disappointed he was with segregation in the U.S. and how people believed so much in “the myth of time” to cure the problem. The myth of time is the idea that time will cure all problems. King did not believe in this idea and wanted problems to be fixed right away. He wanted direct action, which purpose was, “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”(King, 292). Even though King addressed this letter to “my fellow clergymen,”(King, 289) he really wrote the letter to white moderates as an appeal to get more support for bus integration. When the letter was published in the paper, everyone was affected by it.

Thoreau and King definitely shared many of the same ideas of how to deal with unjust laws performed by government. Thoreau didn’t have the legions of followers that King did, but he still made a long-term impact. King actually adopted Thoreau’s teachings and ideas of direct action and used them in leading the movement to end racial segregation in the United States. Both men inspired reforms and also much overturning of unjust laws and customs in our country. We, as a society, should look at these two people as heroic figures and learn from their teachings. This will help us better our knowledge of how to use non-violent direct action for future national and international problems we may encounter.