Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau were two very different individuals that lived in two very different times, but each one of them contributed to history in substantial ways. In addition to their work in adding to progressive thought, each man left behind a document that expressed revolutionary ideas that should be followed by all people. For King, his literary moment in the sun happened amongst the worst of circumstances. He sat down in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama to pen a brave work that would become known as Letters from Birmingham Jail.
For Thoreau, his piece was known as Civil Disobedience. The two works came about in response to different events, but both represented an idea that can still be studied today. Both writers took a significant, individual view on whether or not it was alright to use one’s conscience to disobey unjust laws. Both men stand by their position that following the law is only the right thing to do if the law is the right thing.
In Letters from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. is writing specifically to the leaders of the city of Birmingham. Those men had locked him up for leading a rally for Civil Rights, but King was not going to be silenced while sitting in jail. In fact, his voice rang loud and clear in his letter. King was not happy with the situation in the Deep South and particularly, in Birmingham. When the leaders of Birmingham heard that King was coming to town, they chastised King and the other “outsiders” for invading their space. In his letter from the jail, King writes, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.
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I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham” (King 1963). To King, action had to be taken, even if that was illegal action. For him, it was much more important for a man to let his conscience guide his decisions about the law. After all, it was man’s responsibility to decide what law is just and what law is not just. In describing his reasoning for breaking some laws, while obeying other laws, King does not waver. He clearly indicates that a man must let his conscience lead the way when he writes, “One may well 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 laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, ‘An unjust law is no law at all’” (King 1963). King’s position on the issue is one that may have been lambasted by the leaders of that time, but it holds up in history’s eyes. To him, laws were only to be followed if they had been written in a way that was right according to man.
For Henry David Thoreau, his writing did not come as a result of being locked up, but rather as a commentary on the state of government and man. He wrote Civil Disobedience in 1849, during a time when many governments around the world were changing. For Thoreau, a major problem existed in the way that people went about following laws. He had little patience for folks that blindly listened to what governments had to say without first thinking about those things for themselves.
It was his position that this sort of blind acceptance was both irresponsible and downright dangerous for human beings. If they were going to protect themselves against unfair and unjust governments, men had to have a mind of their own. In his work, Thoreau writes, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right” (Thoreau 1849).
This single quotation is one that basically sums up what he thought about following unjust laws. He was a thinker by nature, which meant that much of his theory was given with a broad scale approach. Still, it does not take much to understand where Thoreau was coming from. He feels it an absolute waste for man to be given such a good brain and a good conscience and not know how to use it for the better. He feels that it is not only the responsibility of man to protect himself from wrongdoing, but to also protect his government from wrongdoing.
If a man does not think for himself about the rightness or wrongness of a law, then he is giving up that right and forfeiting that responsibility. Later in his work, Thoreau goes on to write, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation on conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience” (Thoreau, 1849).
The viewpoints of these two men are in accordance on this issue. Though they did not have to go through the same trials and tribulations in their respective lives, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau had to face moral questions within themselves. For King, his mission was one that was laid on his heart to both his help his people gain Civil Rights and to protect the nation from falling into a backwards way of thinking.
Though Thoreau’s viewpoint is taken at a much broader level, he feels the same way about how a man should think. Just because the legal code that was written by men says that something is illegal does not mean that it is wrong. This is the basic dichotomy that each man presents in his argument. Legality and rightness do not always have to coincide, though they sometimes do. Though it is sometimes difficult for human beings to get around following laws in order to stick strictly to their conscience, this is what both men feel is necessary for the advancement of society.
According to the writings of both men, no greatness or progressive movements can ever be accomplished by men that are willing to blindly accept what they know in their soul is the wrong thing to do. It takes bravery and guts to stand up to the law in defense of the conscience, but this is something that both men had to do at one point during their lives. That obligation is reflected in their writings.
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