How does Thoreau combat racism?
Henry David Thoreau doesn't explicitly combat racism in "Civil Disobedience" but does condemn slavery and the inaction of people against it. His essay also had a major impact in combating racism: he supported refusing to follow unjust laws, which inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement.
Thoreau argues that the government doesn't have power because the views of the majority are right, but rather because the largest group is the strongest. They have the votes to position people in government to represent their viewpoints and pass the laws they see fit. That isn't always the right thing to do though, he says.
Rather, a person's primary goal should be to do what they honestly believe is right, rather than what the majority says should be done. Thoreau writes:
The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
What he means is that a person obeying the law can find himself on the side of injustice simply by doing that which society deems right. He saw obeying unjust laws as giving himself away and dishonoring his own character. Thoreau argues that people who operate in the unjust system are the actual problem holding back change—not the system that enforces the laws.
Thoreau uses an example from his own life. He was opposed to slavery, so he did not pay his taxes. For this protest, he spent a night in jail. This experience is what led him to write "Civil Disobedience." Otherwise, however, he was not a person given to protest and believed it best to walk away from the government altogether and refuse to participate in it.
Thoreau also discusses how people say they're opposed to things like slavery but are unwilling to create an action to change it. He says:
There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them.
This exact idea is echoed more than 100 years later in "A Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King Jr. He argues that white moderates prefer order to justice and are therefore the real opponents of change. This, then, is a major way in which Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" combated racism: it created an idea that bloomed into protests when segregation laws were denying black people civil liberties.
King was inspired by Thoreau, having read "Civil Disobedience" at college. The ideas stuck with him and can be clearly seen in King's own championing of nonviolent protest. This method of protest had a major impact on the Civil Rights movement and helped change an unjust system built on racism.
Thoreau's essay showcased his belief that a government that forced a man to go against his own morals was no just government at all. It expressed his belief that it wasn't enough to be opposed to an unjust institution like slavery—a person had to act deliberately against it. It championed nonviolent protest, which later inspired Civil Rights leaders and helped shape their actions as they fought laws like segregation.