Majority Rule And Power Essay, Research Paper
Majority Power vs. Justice
When looking at the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. in, A Letter From a Birmingham Jail and Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience, one finds that each man takes a somewhat different approach to delivering a message, but the messages are in fact similar, as both call for a drastic change to majority rule. Both men share the desire for universal justice and they feel majority rule prevents this, as too small of a number of individuals can make unjust laws that affect a large portion of the population. Majority and minority are two terms that King and Thoreau use in their writing’s, but their definition of each differs slightly. King sees himself as a part of a minority in the fact that, him being black prevents him from having equal rights under the laws of the United States of America. Thoreau sees himself as a minority because he does not have a say as to the actions of the United States government that is suppose to represent him and he is supposed to support.
Both men call for action and use themselves as a model for how to take action. The motive for both Thoreau’s and King’s writing is based on race and how the United States government does not represent all of its’ citizens. The issue of race is more at the forefront of King’s writing, while proper (or improper) representation by the government is more of the issue that Thoreau looks at, with race as a key point. One of the few significant differences in both men’s attempt to persuade the citizen’s of the United States that their government does represent all men, is the level at which each protest. King’s protest is grander in the form a large march, while Thoreau prefers to do his protesting on an individual level by not adhering to an unjust law and refusing to pay his taxes. Both men believe in accepting full responsibility for their action and all repercussions that come with their actions. This is evident by the fact that both men spent time in jail for their actions. The theme of both works is best summarized in Civil Disobedience, with Thoreau stating,
“After all, the practical reason, why when the power is once in of the people, a majority is permitted, and for a long period allowed to continue to rule, is not the hands because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.” (Thoreau, page 1)
The goal or goals of King’s writing is to: one, call for more action against the corrupt rule of the majority democracy and to: two, explain why and how he believes his actions will work, and why they are necessary for the rights of the minority. The main problem the King has with the majority democracy is that they promote injustice through unjust laws,
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine “An unjust law is no law at all”.
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when 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 Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (King, page 4)
According to King these unjust laws allow for not only the minority to be kept from any sort of natural rights, but it also allows for the majority to stay in power. This is what alarms King as he knows that any group that is given power will usually take the necessary steps to ensure that they keep power, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (King, page 3)
King is also concerned by the fact that majoritarian democracy can often pose its will on the people under its rule, forcing them to change their issue on a particular issue. This can happen without the people even knowing it and they soon find themselves believing in something that they did not originally believe in, “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.” (King, page 3)
King proposes that majoritarian democracy must be challenged through the actions of the minority. His belief in non-violence is central to his method for opposing a majoritarian democracy.
“In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationalist would do. This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming “nigger, nigger, nigger”) and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.” (King, page 4)
King believes that opposition to the majority is the only way to obtain justice for all members of a society, and that this opposition, must come directly from the group being denied. This is an area where King and Thoreau differ somewhat, as both believe in opposition, but Thoreau does so by himself, while King organizes a march of thousands of people. This is somewhat of an underlying theme for both men in their writing. King, despite being persecuted for his actions and deprived of civil rights still has hope for the United States coming together as a whole,
“Let us hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” (King, page 10)
Thoreau does not share the same enthusiasm for the United States as nation stating,
However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination free, that which is never a long time appearing to be him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.” (Thoreau, page 10)
This exemplifies Thoreau’s tendencies to be separatist when faced with following the rule of an unjust nation. Although King and Thoreau agree on many aspects of democracy and minority power, their hope for the government of the United States is not the same.
Thoreau’s main contention with the government of the United States is that it should not be able to force its’ laws on the people of a nation, especially when many of the practices do not advocate democracy. This is the reason why Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience, as it is a protest to the slavery practices in the United States and a protest of the intentions of the Mexican-American war. Thoreau does not believe that a government with these practices is capable of ruling him or his fellow citizens,
“How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.” (Thoreau, page 5)
The belief that the government has wrong intentions, leads Thoreau to suspect that many of the laws in place are unjust laws and he should not have to follow them, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? (Thoreau, page 4)
Like King, Thoreau proposes a revolt against the unjust laws of the United States. Thoreau believes that the key issue in the revolt against the government should be the forced rules on its citizens when those rules are unjust. He also seems to think that many people have been sort of brainwashed into thinking that they live in a great democracy, when in fact the United States has a number of significant flaws, namely slavery.
Thoreau believes that a person should assume all consequences under the law if they are to revolt and that this will hopefully lead to change. He preaches direct revolt against the government and its’ practices,
I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, foam the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.” (Thoreau, page 5)
Although Thoreau does back up his words with his actions, much of his energy is spent telling society that they are living in an unjust democracy rather than leading them towards a change. Thoreau’s actions do not take away from his words in anyway, but he does not share the same leadership as King. Thoreau was a very passionate man and his ideas and observations were extremely intelligent and accurate. However, his desire to live in solitude and not take on a larger role is where he and King differ and.
Despite subtle differences, both men can be looked at as the most prevalent speakers on justice of their respective times. They both call for a change to the status quo and they are sending a wakeup call to all those who read their literature. Their techniques may very somewhat, but their motives are the same as they both hope to dissolve majority power through minority action, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” (Thoreau, page1)