Henry Thoreau

’s Influences On Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay, Research Paper

Henry Thoreau’s influence on Martin Luther King Jr.

Henry David Thoreau was a great American writer, philosopher, and naturalist of the 1800’s who’s writings have influenced many famous leaders in the 20th century, as well as in his own lifetime. Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, where he was later educated at Harvard University. Thoreau was a transcendentalist writer, which means that he believed that intuition and the individual conscience “transcend” experience and are better guides to truth than are the senses and logical reason (Prentice Hall 1174). Thoreau is well known for writing Walden Pond, Excursions, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and A Yankee in Canada. In 1849 Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay called Civil Disobedience which little did he know would influence great leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and US civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. He graduated college with honors and developed a talent for public speaking. A man by the name of Edgar D. Nixon saw King’s public-speaking gifts as great assets in the battle for black civil rights in Montgomery, where the bus system was about to be boycotted on account of Rosa Park’s incarceration. King slowly became a well-known civil rights leader that gave many speeches and non-violent protests. This is about the time that King studied the writings of Henry David Thoreau, especially Civil Disobedience. Throughout the history of the United States, there have been many times when citizens have felt the need to revolt against the government. Times of revolt where when Henry Thoreau was alive and during the civil rights movement of the 1950’s. The reasons for these revolts included discrimination against the African-American community and Americans refusing to pay poll taxes to support the Mexican War. Thoreau refused to pay the poll ax because the money was being used to finance a war he was against. This war was over Texas, which was to enter the Union as a slave state. He wrote Civil Disobedience while in the Walden jail. Thoreau wrote how disappointed he was with the government by forcing him to pay a poll tax that supported a war and slavery. King would later go to jail acting on his beliefs. Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau 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 2). Thoreau wrote that people practicing civil disobedience, break a law because they consider the law unjust. People want to call attention to its injustice. Thoreau voiced civil disobedience as, “An expression of the individual’s liberty to create change” (Thoreau 530). Years later Martin Luther King Jr. took the same idea of direct action to protest the injustices brought upon black Americans in the United States. One major example was the Birmingham bus boycott. Blacks where treated unjust and often had to give up their seats to whites, and had to listen to racial slurs made by the bus driver. King like Thoreau, did not take a violent approach, he often used sit-ins and rallies to unite the black community (Encarta Encyclopedia 2). Non-violent acts such as this, led to Kings arrest in Birmingham where he was placed in jail. Here, King wrote a famous letter called “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to his clergyman. This letter contained many ideas of Thoreau about the government. In Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, both agreed on injustice of majority to rule over minority, both resisted the government passively, and both wanted a better government immediately. The two writings shared the fact that the majority was not necessarily right, but they have always between the ones in power because they are the strongest and the most influential (Kevin Franklin 1). Therefore, laws written by the majority are mostly in favor of the majority, and are enforced by the majority. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that, “if a law denies the right of the minority or is inflicted upon the minority by force, then it is not a just law.” This is similar to Thoreau’s idea when he wrote, “But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice,” (1:1425). Both agreed that unjust laws should be broken. King adopted ideas from Thoreau on how to deal with unjust laws performed by the government. 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.

Henry David Thoreau was a brilliant transcendentalist writer, who not only influenced people of his time, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, but many great leaders in the past century. Civil Disobedience paved away for non-violent protests that were more effective in changing unjust laws. Martin Luther King Jr. followed many of Thoreau’s teachings and which made segregation no longer a problem in America. Two other great leaders that Thoreau influenced were Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Thoreau inspired reforms and the overturning of unjust laws and customs. If it weren’t for Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience, many unjust laws might have been still in effect today.

Written by Brian Verzal


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