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In Henry David Thoreau’s “ Civil Disobedience” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the authors examine the notion of disobeying the government in the case of moral injustice. Thoreau writes about his reasoning for defying the law and calls on other people to fight for what they know to be morally right. Similarly, a century later, King articulates when it is just to protest the government and how progressive policy is brought about by citizens demanding their rights. In both of these essays, King and Thoreau explore the concept of systematic injustice and the idea of challenging laws one does not find morally right using vastly different tones to convey their messages.
Within “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the authors address injustices that are committed by the government. Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King have two totally different perspectives: Thoreau is a white man living in the 1800s refusing to pay taxes to a government that allows slavery, and King is a black man at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. King is subject to the laws he opposes; Thoreau is not. Regardless of their differing points of view, both of them promote similar ideologies. When Thoreau speaks of government injustices, he is talking about slavery, while when King does so he is referring to segregation; both Thoreau states in his essay, “ If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations” (18). In saying this, he means that if citizens never questioned the government’s actions the United States would not be the country that it is. A law is not automatically just or fair because it was put in place by the government, and it is the job of the citizens to keep the government in check. Dr. King remarks in his letter, “Some have asked, ‘Why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?’ The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts. We will be sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Mr. Boutwell will bring the millennium to Birmingham” (2). Martin Luther King knows that oppressed groups cannot wait around for the government to grant them their rights; the government relies on its citizens to make it better. Thoreau and King both contend that the government and the privileged members of society must be pressured by the oppressed to reform the laws and surrender some of their power to minority groups.
In addition to pointing out the government’s enforcement of social injustices in society, Thoreau argues that it is a citizen’s duty to stand up against inequality. In doing so, Thoreau’s work touches upon the idea of the individual versus the collective or the minority versus the majority.
He states in his essay, “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? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?” (7).
In Thoreau’s opinion, a society in which the majority always gets to dictate the laws in place is a society where unjust laws exist. He ponders what should be done when the minority proves to be the more moral group. Thoreau asserts issues of morality should be decided by the individual and not by the laws set by the government. Since the government decides what is allowed, Thoreau persuades people to always fight for what is moral and to never be complacent in the face of injustice. He argues, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (9). An individual who is ethical and moral cannot be apathetic to injustice occurring in society.
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Similarly, in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Dr. King contends that the rights of a minority will only be granted if they are fought for and the system is challenged. After addressing the beliefs of those who counter his methodology King states, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (3). King’s opponents question why break the law when one can simply attempt to move towards negotiation in a more passive manner; in response to this counterargument, he asserts that direct action is necessary to make big change. King writes, “You may well ask, ‘Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” One cannot sit back and hope that eventually oppressed and marginalized groups will gain the rights they deserve. Through examining history, it is apparent that those in power do not let go of their privileges on their own initiative; they must be pressured into doing so. Dr. King says in his letter, “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. 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” (2). Much like Thoreau, King recognizes that individuals are often times more moral than the collective. One may notice injustice in society and become willing to change their ways, but a system that has been built for hundreds of years on the backs of the oppressed will not give power up on its own. None of the previous progress made by the Civil Rights Movement has been achieved through complacency or passivity. Change is made by individuals recognizing an imbalance of power or an unjust system and fighting with everything in their power to fix it.
Furthermore, both Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King express similar concepts and ideas, yet do so using different persuasive elements. An important factor of an effective persuasive argument is the tone of the writing. Thoreau has a more frustrated and exasperated tone, but King maintains a more calm and reserved tone. While both essays effectively get across their message, the tones of the authors are not what one would expect. It would make sense that Martin Luther King would have an angry tone in his letter because he is a black man living during the Civil Rights Movement. He is a member of the oppressed group and is directly affected by segregation. However, because of his place in society, King is somewhat required to maintain his composure so that he is not written off as an angry black man. He effectively balances coming off as calm, but never as passive or indifferent. King does so by explaining detail how he has broken the law, why he broke the law, why he will continue to do so, and addresses counterpoints to his stance. King writes, “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 the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws.” He acknowledges the stance of white moderates in a respectful tone and believes that they have good intentions, but claims that their lack of action is not what is going to lead to progress.
Additionally, King shares personal anecdotes including one about his daughter to further explain his emotional connection to the movement. In the text King says,“When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people” (2). Yet with his extremely personal connection to the Civil Rights Movement, he still remains calm in his letter. On the other hand, Thoreau is a white man that is not directly affected by slavery, but is still obviously outraged by the actions of the United States government. He has the privilege of being able to openly express his disdain and anger through his writing. Without leaving his main focus, Thoreau jumps to several different ideas in his essay which further demonstrates his exasperated state. He makes it very clear that he does not want to belong to a society that allows injustices, such as those enforced by the American government, to take place. “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
In both Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau’s essays, they explore the idea of civil disobedience. Their messages are intertwined, yet their tones differ greatly. King purposefully maintains a more respectful tone, as a black man living under a system that oppresses him. Thoreau is a white man that is not directly affected by the inequalities perpetuated by the government, but still pointedly expresses his aversion to it. One hundred years apart, both men have very different perspectives, but offer similar viewpoints. Both encourage individuals to do what they feel is morally right and to not give up their power in society to the majority.
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