Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau was especially sympathetic to the plight of African American slaves, and would likely have shared the views of Martin Luther King. What advice might Thoreau have given King?

The advice that Henry David Thoreau would have given to Martin Luther King Jr. can be found in Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience," where Thoreau promotes following your conscience and resisting unjust laws, even if it means going to prison for what you believe in. Dr. King followed this advice and was incarcerated multiple times over the course of the civil rights movement.

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Henry David Thoreau's advice to Martin Luther King Jr. appears in Thoreau's famous essay "Civil Disobedience." In fact, the ideas in "Civil Disobedience" profoundly influenced King in formulating his strategy of nonviolent resistance during his struggles with segregation.

"Civil Disobedience" is a written justification by Thoreau of...

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Henry David Thoreau's advice to Martin Luther King Jr. appears in Thoreau's famous essay "Civil Disobedience." In fact, the ideas in "Civil Disobedience" profoundly influenced King in formulating his strategy of nonviolent resistance during his struggles with segregation.

"Civil Disobedience" is a written justification by Thoreau of his decision to go to jail rather than pay a tax. He committed the crime to protest slavery and what he considered an unjust war with Mexico. The essay extols the value of individual conscience above the dictates of government and emphasizes that if a government commits injustice, it is the duty of citizens to disobey that government. Citizens must accept the consequences of their disobedience, even if as a consequence they have to go to jail. Thoreau points out that most people obey their governments without thinking. Only a few courageous people have the courage to resist.

A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies.

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau differentiates between unjust laws that are harmless and can safely be obeyed until they are changed and laws that cause people to harm others. He concludes that "if it is of such a nature that requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law." He goes so far as to write:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Martin Luther King Jr. certainly took this advice seriously, as he was arrested numerous times in his struggles to change unjust laws concerning segregation of African Americans in the United States. During one of his incarcerations, King composed his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which expresses his thoughts concerning civil disobedience.

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.

We see, then, that the advice that Thoreau would give to King is found in his essay "Civil Disobedience," and it has to do with resistance in the face of unjust laws.

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