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Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

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“Disobedience to be civil has to be open and nonviolent. ” - Mahatma Gandhi Throughout history philosophers have played a key role in our society. Both Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought forth their own ways of civil disobedience, in their belief that it was imperative to disobey unjust laws. Their thoughts manifested from ideas, to theories, and eventually lead to our society today. Civil disobedience in a pragmatic way is the act of a non-violent movement in order to enforce the change of certain laws to ensure equality for all.

Dr. King explained in his quote “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, willingly to accept the punishment” (220). Nevertheless, on opposite ends of the spectrum, Thoreau implied an aggressive stance motivated by his own personal hate for the government but yet King used religion, supported by his charismatic ways of being gentle and apologetic. While King and Thoreau both believed in the use of civil disobedience to create change, they went about using civil disobedience in staggeringly different fashion. As stated by Dr. King in his letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (214). Regarding this issue, King believed that all American communities are connected and that injustice in one community will affect other communities. Perhaps, one could deem injustice as a disease such as cancer that forms in one area then quickly spreading and eventually discombobulating the entire social infrastructure. Dr. King reshaped America’s social issues through a non-violent approach in distinction to boycotting buses in Montgomery to marching through Selma, King responded to unjust laws with civil disobedience and direct action.

Dr. King’s stance on prejudice laws came from morality. Primarily using morality as a backbone in his argument, we would agree that it is wrong to foster laws that affect a certain race or group of people. Moreover, our laws are a reflection of our morals and it sets forth what we know is right and what we know is wrong. Early philosophers often struggled and faced opposition with either the government or social groups. Opposition faced consequences such as confinement, torture, or worse, death, whereas the idea of brutal punishment inflicted fear on the next individual.

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In his “Letter from Birmingham”, King compared his calling to Birmingham to the Apostle Paul in the Bible, “[and how he] carried the gospel of the lord to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world” (214). King expressed a legitimate concern over the anxiety to break laws; elaborating the fact that there are two laws; just laws and unjust laws. King stated, “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law” (220). Rather more, King agreed that just laws should be followed; however unjust laws are to be met with civil disobedience. What makes a law unjust one might ask? From the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, King explained that “any law that degrades human personality is unjust”. (219) Segregation gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and distorts the soul and damages the personality. Back in Dr. King’s time, a series of laws were passed that were the ethos of “separate but equal”. King rallied in opposition of these laws as still prejudice and unjust, in fact these laws were against morals. Under this doctrine, services, facilities and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race, on the condition that the quality of each group's public facilities was to remain equal.

Signage using the phrases “No Negros allowed” and “whites only” distorted our views on race relations. However, King believed this in fact is not equality and it is against our morals. As a result of Henry David Thoreau using civil disobedience and direct action, Dr. King was motivated by his techniques which lead to a series of events that would lead to the Civil Rights Movement. “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (180).

As Thoreau explained in his excerpt from “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau used the revolution of ’75 as an example of bad government. Thoreau elucidated how the government taxed certain foreign commodities that were brought to its ports. He then began to correlate bad government to a machine and stated how all machines have their friction, however, when friction takes over a machine, “and oppression and robbery are organized, I say let us not have such a machine any longer” (180).

Thoreau elaborated on this idea that the government is a machine and when evil takes over, let us no longer have such a government. He believed not that a government should exist “but at once a better government” (178), Thoreau argued that power should not be left to the majority, but the “conscience”, in fact he questioned the reader rhetorically asking “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? ”(178) Thoreau feels that the “conscience” plays a personal role.

Thoreau questions democracy, and thereupon he advises us to question why we should capitulate to the government if we do not agree with a law? Why would we possess brains and have a conscience of our own if we are not allowed to think for ourselves and do what we want? Thoreau feels we ought to be real for ourselves, not the government. Furthermore, he articulated the idea that should we surrender our thoughts, or conscience to the government, or should we pursue a justifiable explanation of the dilemmas that surround us? What is right as opposed to what is wrong is what leads to civil disobedience.

Thoreau believed that the idea of paying taxes to support the Mexican-American was an unjust cause, whereas; King strongly disagreed with laws that were prejudice. In Thoreau’s reading from his article “Civil Disobedience”, he argues “that government is best which governs not at all” (177), which ultimately leads the people to discipline themselves. On the other side King explained how “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a [community that has refused, is forced] to confront the issue” (216).

By cause of King being after Thoreau’s era, King used Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and direct action to spark a change in society. While both Thoreau and King argued with morality in mind, they both believed injustice exist. Thoreau thinks of injustice as friction or tension that can wear the machine down. King believes that injustice just exists and tension must be created with direct action to negotiate with the machine. I accredit Dr.

King in presenting the best argument due to the audience he reached out to which of course was the populace and his motives that captivated his courageous and selfless acts. Furthermore, Dr. King was concerned about injustice towards people based on their race, religion, or sex; whereas Thoreau was motivated by his personal hatred for the government. Regardless of how either King or Thoreau used civil disobedience, their contributions led to an admiration for their works and casted a light on unjust laws.

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Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (2017, May 28). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/civil-disobedience-henry-david-thoreau-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr/

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