The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

by Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee
Start Free Trial

What modern day acts of civil disobedience can I relate to Thoreau's acts in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think that you can find modern acts of civil disobedience that strike at the heart of Thoreau's beliefs about how individuals cannot sit idly by when there is perceived injustice in the world.  Outside of the ones already mentioned, I would suggest that Cesar Chavez's hunger strike in recognition of the plight of migrant workers against grape growers in California is one such example of civil disobedience.  The protests and disturbances at the World Trade Organization over the last decade, most notably at the Seattle hosting of the conference, might be reminiscent of Thoreau's anger.  I would also point out to Cindy Sheehan camping outside former President Bush's Crawford ranch and her hunger strike are also examples of civil disobedience that might be highly reminiscent of Thoreau's anger.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The closest action to that of Henry David Thoreau is that of Martin Luther King, Jr. who spent a night in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement on April 16, 1963.  King was sent to jail for participating in a civil rights demonstration; while in the Birmingham City Jail, Dr. King wrote a letter paralleling many of the thoughts of Thoreau, for King was an admirer of his philosophy.  In fact, King uses Thoreau's words in his conclusion:

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.

King's letter is in response to eight caucasian Alabama clergymen who agreed that social injustices existed, but felt that the battle should not be fought not in the streets, but in the courts.  King argued that without non-violent forceful, direct actions* true civil rights could never be achieved.


*forceful, non-violent, direct actions, advocated first by Thoreau, then by Gandhi were influential to Dr. King's thinking.


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most famous acts of civil disobedience in recent (I hope that this qualifies as recent, even though it is from before I was born) US history happened back in the 1950s and 1960s -- during the Civil Rights Movement.

The most famous of those would include:

  • Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Birmingham in 1957
  • The sit-ins at the lunch counters in Greensboro, NC in 1960
  • The "Freedom Riders" who rode buses through the South and broke segregation laws in 1963.

Since then, there really have not been any acts of peaceful civil disobedience that have had anywhere near the high profile of the ones I've mentioned here.

I suppose you could talk about draft card burning during the Vietnam War, but even that is almost 40 years in the past now.

I would say the most high profile civil disobedience since then would be the blockades of abortion clinics.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team