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As human beings, we naturally develop a conscious perception of life around us, that is, although very unique and personal, often strongly influenced by the guidelines of law set by our government. This influence leads to near-blind control over self-acknowledgement of our own humane rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not only asserted but showed that each of our own individual consciences should have the right to challenge the government. This would allow society to not be run from the biased government’s view, but from that of the people affected by the government. King’s ideas show influence from the highly regarded idealists Henry David Thoreau and Plato.
Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience brings to light the necessity for the conscience of each of society’s citizens to have an equal impact on government regulations. “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong but conscience? – in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? 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” (Jacobus 178). Thoreau is stating his belief that a man is first obligated to act on their conscience, or what they personally feel is right or wrong. With a majority, a minority also exists, and any time there is not equality, the humanity of someone is undermined.
Through his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King expresses agreement with many of Thoreau’s assertions in his work. “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (Jacobus 218). King not only acknowledges the importance of conscience in legality, but also its direct relation to morality. This allows him to show laws that one feels are unjust are immoral as well and therefore as a member of society, one has not only the right, but the obligation to challenge this law. King considerately expands on this philosophy: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist…One who breaks an unjust law, must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty…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 the law” (Jacobus 220). King is suggesting that passion shows intent, which causes the conscience of society to evaluate the situation. This approach to disobeying unjust laws contrasts a rebel and a “man who has a dream”.
King, along with Thoreau nonviolently protested, exemplifying them of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. In the eras in which Civil Disobedience and Letter from Birmingham Jail were written, nonviolent protesting was not seen as a fundamental approach to reforming the government. It was an action that required much independence and patience, but eventually would show to create significant progress. Plato’s literal concept is shown in the following quote: “…my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right…the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual…this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you” (Jacobus 453). Thoreau applied this concept through his refusing to pay taxes, and, similarly to King, spending a night in jail. In his letter, King suggested an application of Plato’s allegory: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” (Jacobus 216). As Plato suggested that others would agree with the activist as much as they can understand them, King is ensuring that the government will meet their demands as a result of evaluating the unusual situation, which requires use of conscience. It will, however, take time for the nonviolent protests to be considered successful, just as it would take time for one’s eyes to adjust to the light after dwelling in a cave for much of their life, as Plato described.
Agreeing with Thoreau, King recognized that a person’s perception of the government is likely to be biased in favor of the government itself. King believed that our individuality is what unites us as a society. If one citizen is given one less right than the rest of the society’s people have, then the society is not growing, no matter how stable things may seem for the majority. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Jacobus 214). With a government that is powered by what represents less than a whole of society, there will always be a bias towards the majority. Bias leads to no favorability to those groups that are unbiased, resulting in very simple formation of unjust laws.
King not only asserted, but also showed the government itself the importance of society’s conscience. Rather than “fighting fire with fire”, King allowed himself to be burned after which he continued to stand at his position. Since the government was faced with an unfamiliar crisis, it was able to step out of its strict regulation and become more open-minded to King’s reasoning, magnifying the importance of conscience and the impact that it is meant to have. The reformation that resulted from the civil rights movement allowed society to grow, as it was run by the people, rather than running the people.
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