What did Thoreau and Dr. King learn about themselves while in prison?

Thoreau's time in jail led him to think more clearly about his relationship to the state and to formulate his ideas about the duty of resisting unjust laws in Civil Disobedience, one of his most important essays. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" illustrates that the most important lesson he learned was that he had more to fear from moderates in the South, especially white clergymen, in terms of gaining equality than from rabid segregationists.

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Both Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. felt strongly enough about their time in jail that they published essays about it later. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience is, on the one hand, a statement of his political philosophy, but it is also a reflection on an issue that became clear...

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Both Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. felt strongly enough about their time in jail that they published essays about it later. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience is, on the one hand, a statement of his political philosophy, but it is also a reflection on an issue that became clear to him during his night in jail in 1846the nature of his duty to the state and to his own conscience. Three years after his experience, Thoreau wrote that it was his moral duty to resist unjust laws, which he defined as laws that require one to "be the agent of injustice to another." If that meant going to jail, then so be it. Comparing the state to a vast machine, he argued that a person should be like "friction," a "counterpoise" against unjust acts. Thoreau had done this by refusing to pay a poll tax, on the grounds that to do so would be to finance an unjust war with Mexico and to lend his support for slavery. This position, founded fundamentally on a belief that "the government governs best which governs least," was crystallized during his (very brief) time in jail.

Much of King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" was written while the civil rights leader languished in jail, put there for his acts of civil disobedience during the Birmingham campaign of 1963. Writing in response to public statements by white moderate ministers who criticized his violations of the law, King clarifies his belief in civil disobedience as a moral means of effecting social change. Indeed, he references Thoreau himself, among with many others. He offers a cogent defense of the actions of the movement, repeating, in many cases, things he had said in speeches and other public statements by the spring of 1963. His most important argument in the letter, however, points to the greatest lesson he drew from the Birmingham campaign. White moderates, who argued that change should come slowly and incrementally (and without disruptive protests), represented a major threat to the movementperhaps more dangerous, he wrote, than the "White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner." While in jail, he came to the conclusion that these people preferred order over freedom for African Americans, and their unwillingness to support the movement was a major disappointment to King, more so than the enmity of segregationists, who he fully expected would react with "massive resistance" and violence:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

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