Thoreau and King Henry David Thoreau’s



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Thoreau and King
Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience took the original idea of transcendentalism and put it into action. His civil acts of defiance were revolutionary as he endorsed a form of protest that did not incorporate violence or fear. Thoreau’s initial actions involving the protest of many governmental issues, including slavery, landed him in jail as he refused to pay taxes or to run away. Ironically, more than one hundred years later, the same issue of equal rights was tearing the United States apart. Yet African Americans, like Martin Luther King Jr., followed in Thoreau’s footsteps by partaking in acts of civil disobedience. Sit-ins and peaceful rallies drew attention to the issue while keeping it from escalating into a much more violent problem. Thoreau’s ideas were becoming prevalent as they were used by Civil Rights Activists and the Supreme Court, in such cases as Brown v. Board of Education. The ideology that was created by Thoreau aided the activists and the government in their quest for equality and a more just system of law.

The main goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to instate equality under the law. King was a figurehead for the Civil Rights Movement. King’s ability to organize factions into a force that was unaffected by violence greatly contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. In a letter he wrote from a Birmingham jail, King describes the four steps to non-violent protest. The first step is “collection of the facts to determine whether an injustice exists.”1 This relates to Thoreau’s critique of an unjust government. Thoreau believed that every machine had friction, yet “when the friction comes to have its machine…let us not have such a machine any longer.”2 In the case of civil rights, the government has the friction of racial inequalities. That friction had several machines which enables whites to prevail over African Americans. King’s second step was negation. Thoreau lived during a time when negotiation was non-existent. He met the government “once a year--no more--in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it.”3 In the case of Thoreau and King, their struggle could not be resolved by simple negotiation. The third step, as King calls it, was self purification. In this step, the protestors would organize and prepare themselves to be abused but never retaliate. Thoreau believed that every man should “make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”4 It was his belief that if every man followed their goals and would accept the punishment for doing so, anything would be possible. Upon spending his night in jail for not paying his taxes, Thoreau said that he felt “as if [he] alone of all [his] townsmen had paid [his] tax.”5 King’s last step was direct action. The movement of King and the civil rights protestors relied on the success of direct action. If they were to fight back, run away, their actions would be seen as criminal and therefore would not be seen at all. The idea of civil action seems to be taken directly from Thoreau. The recognition that people were the true power of government was Thoreau’s strongest argument. One of his arguments stated that if self-proclaimed abolitionists “should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government…it would be the abolition of slavery in America.”6 Through close examination of the Civil Rights Movement and that of Thoreau, we can observe how the same arguments can be ventured in 1849 as well as in 1963. There are other similarities in the arguments of Thoreau and civil rights that focuses on the basics of just and unjust laws.

The overall problem of the Civil Rights Movement was the competing views of what were just and unjust laws. White supremacists believed the issue was clear and took the view point that African Americans were a subordinate race and should, therefore, be kept subordinate under the law. Civil rights activists believed that all men were created equal and therefore should be equal under the law. King uses many quotes from well educated historical figures to strengthen his argument. He acknowledges his agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas who said “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”7 This can be applied to the plight of African Americans as natural law would dictate that all men are created equal. A just law “is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”8 Thoreau argues that unjust laws exist yet not all unjust laws should be fought against. He believes that “if the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go…perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out.”9 Yet he supplements that argument by saying that if the law “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then…break the law.”10 Through application of this quote to the Civil Rights Movement, we judge whether the fight should have been ignored, or whether the law should have been civilly broken. We can identify the ‘machine’ as the government of the United States and we can identify the friction as the inequality of men. In addition we can say that white supremacists in government used many tools to inhibit the advancement of African Americans. This means that the friction caused and required some to be the agent of injustice which meant that Thoreau and King would agree that the law must be broken. Understanding these concepts of laws aided the activists to draw attention to their issue as well as exploit the unjust law.

The impact of Thoreau’s ideology and the actions of Civil Rights Activists began to influence the ideas of government. In the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, the judges overturned the case of Plessey v. Ferguson. This monumental event declared that separate was inherently unequal. The case summary, as written by Chief Justice Warren, was interesting as it utilized ideas from Thoreau. Warren states that segregation has a detrimental effect on the education of African Americans and says that “the impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law.”11 If we were to interpret this case as Thoreau would have, we would say that the friction of segregation has an enforceable machine and therefore should be abolished. This case provides us with another example of how Thoreau’s ideas aided the Civil Rights Movement.

The ideas presented by Thoreau in 1849 were just as applicable to the Abolitionist Movement as they were to the Civil Rights Movement. The method and strategy of his civil disobedience seemed to be emulated by King over 100 years later. His theories and reasoning on the topic of unjust laws seemed to catalyze the arguments employed by King during the Civil Rights Movement. The argument for Brown v. Board of Education, as waged by Warren, seemed to develop based on the theories of Thoreau. In retrospect, the most significant actions of the Civil Rights Movement, that lead to it success, can be attributed to Thoreau’s ideas as stipulated in Civil Disobedience.


1 King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. University of Pennsylvania –African Studies Center. 7 August 2005. <http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>.

2 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.” 5 August 2005. .

3 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.”

4 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.”

5 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.”

6 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.”

7 King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. University of Pennsylvania –African Studies Center. 7 August 2005. <http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>.

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

9 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.” 5 August 2005. .

10 Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.”

11 Warren, Earl. “Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)”. Civil Rights:Brown v. Board of Education I (1954). 18 August 2005.

Works Cited


King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. University of Pennsylvania –African Studies Center. 7 August 2005.

< http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/Articles_Gen/Letter_

Birmingham.html>.
Thoreau, Henry. “Civil Disobedience.” Civil Disobedience. 5 August 2005. <http://www.cs.indiana.edu/statecraft/civ.dis.html>.
Warren, Earl. “Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)”. Civil Rights:Brown v. Board of Education I (1954). 18 August 2005. <http://www.nationalcenter.org/brown.html>



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