Martin Luther King and Thoreau Essay

Pages: 4 (1326 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: History

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King’s approach to civil disobedience was that one who wants to protest against the injustice must be willing to sacrifice himself and put himself in harm’s way, in the clear steamrolling path of the government and the authorities in order to raise awareness: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law” (King). Indeed, this is exactly what King did: King had been ordered by the state not to protest against racism in Birmingham—but knowing that the laws were unjust and wanting to make a difference through civil disobedience, King put himself out there in harm’s way, made the protest, and then was arrested and sent to prison.

While Thoreau places his idea of civil disobedience in the realm of philosophy and morality and political discourse, quoting Paley’s “Duty of Submission to Civil Government,” King places his idea of civil disobedience in the realm of Biblical religion when he states that civil disobedience was a method used by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they refused to obey the unjust dictates of Nebuchadnezzar “on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake” (King). He notes that civil disobedience was the common method of protest among the early Christians “who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire” (King). He even points to Socrates, who drank the hemlock juice, and the Boston Tea Party, as signs of civil disobedience by people throughout history in order to justify his activities.

And King’s civil disobedience worked, just as Thoreau anticipated that it would if a community ever felt strongly enough about an issue that they would be willing to throw a monkey wrench in the works of modern society by refusing to go along with the injustices any longer. People who were willing to be uncomfortable or to make themselves the objects of derision by the state for a little while all the time making it worse for the state by refusing to take part in the state’s services, its economy, its tax collection and so on would be the ones to truly make a difference in the world and effect real change. King demonstrated as much in real action as his civil disobedience turned into Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1963—a change to the unjust laws of segregation that allowed no one in America to act prejudicially to others any longer. The bus boycott, the protest in Birmingham, the peaceful march on Washington—all of these were demonstrations of civil disobedience that helped prove Thoreau’s theory correct: that the best way to change an unjust government was to engage in civil disobedience and gum up the works of government so that it was forced to change itself.

In conclusion, King’s Civil Rights Movement employed civil disobedience to address a moral wrong in society. This was similar to what Thoreau advocated when he encouraged the idea of civil disobedience by urging people to boycott merchants and the government, which made people believe that some were better than others, that some deserved freedom while others deserved slavery. Using arguments was a waste of time, as far as Thoreau felt: the real impetus for change was to disobey peacefully.

Works Cited

Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr. NY: Penguin, 2002.

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 1963.

http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” 1849.

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper2/thoreau/civil.html [END OF PREVIEW]

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