Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau

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Last updated: June 16, 2019

The essays by Martin Luther King Jr. , “Letters From Birmingham Jail” and Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” show how one can be a civil person and protest against unfair, unjust laws forced upon them. Both authors are very persuasive in their letter writings.

Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. write about the injustice of government laws, of right and wrong, and one’s moral and upstanding conscience of a human being. Martin Luther King Jr. s a religious, peaceful man who uses non-violent rallies to gather American’s to unite against segregation for the greater good and future of America. Henry David Thoreau writes of his own individual rights and those of others, which government opposes unlawful laws of taxes to support a Mexican war and slavery.Although each essay were written more then 100 years apart, both authors were jailed for having a similar goal, standing up for their rights, and the rights of others. Henry David Thoreau in 1846 while refusing to pay taxes opposed on him by the government, and Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Leader in 1963, for protesting to end segregation.

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While in Birmingham Martin Luther King Jr. was protesting in a peaceful non-violent protest against unlawful segregation, he was jailed for protesting without a permit. Accused by his fellow clergymen of being, “unwise and untimely” (154). Dr. King Jr.

wrote in a return letter to them stating his sorrow and disappointment of their judgment upon him, Dr. King Jr. , tells us: One who breaks and unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.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. (161) Dr. King Jr. is telling his fellow clergymen although he is not one for breaking or disobeying the law, he is being jailed unjustly for protesting peacefully, there are times when one needs to take a stand for what is right and wrong. Just as Dr.

King Jr. was jailed for his beliefs, so was Thoreau. Thoreau writes in a “Civil Disobedience”, he tells us: 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 last 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. (323) Thoreau is asking why we must follow and why one must never question the laws set by the majority of people who run the government. Are we not individuals with a mind and conscience to know right from wrong? Thoreau believes one should be their own individual, and not let government control them.

Both Thoreau, and Dr. King Jr. agree the law’s set by government are unjust and many times have a double standard for certain classes of citizen’s.Thoreau also states, “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have” (322).

Thoreau believes the best government is one that does not oppose unjust laws and lets it people live and think for themselves. This government will end up being a government for and of the people in the future. Martin Luther King Jr. had a different take on how the laws of government should work, and how disappointed he is with the government, he states: How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?A just law is a man- made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. To put it in the terms of St.

Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

(159-160) Martin Luther King Jr. tells us one should obey the law’s set forth by government and God, we all have a conscience, and we are morally bound to do what is right.The difference in regards to the laws set by government; Martin Luther King Jr. has a calm religious tone about how to get his word heard, and wants people to change as a whole group. Henry David Thoreau used a more direct manner of obedience towards the law, and is only concerned with his own prejudice hatred towards the government. Although they both believe the government has morally just and unjust laws, they both believe government is very flawed, and it must change for the future growth of America.

Martin Luther King Jr. tates, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to abbey but does not make binding on itself” (160). Martin Luther King Jr. believes in the law and all Americans should be treated equal.

While Henry David Thoreau uses the law’s set by government and the Constitution to get his point across, he states government is, “more interested in commerce and agriculture then they are in humanity, and they are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico” (326). Thoreau is trying to make people aware of their God given rights of individualism and their right to be heard.


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