University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr
There is no doubt that there are many similarities between Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry Thoreau though they did not live in the same century. King himself declared that he was greatly influenced by Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedient. The two civil right activists had similar ideas on justice in the society. It is also believed that Thoreau’s work was also influenced by Ralph Emerson who initiated the thoughts about transcendentalism in him. Although some people believe that King was more influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader, it is important to note that the ideas of Gandhi were based on the ideas put forward by Thoreau.
Moreover, King stated that while in college, he read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedient which inspired very strong feelings on him (Arsenault, pg 62). The main difference between Thoreau and King is the context in which each one of them operated. It is also important to note that King was most vocal a century after Thoreau had left the scene. Thoreau was an author historian and a philosopher in the 19th century. One of his most famous books other than the civil disobedient essay was the Walden which had the main theme as simple living.
Thoreau was also a white American since his grandfather was a Frenchman. He was opposed to the injustices against the minority in the society in the mid 19th century which included African Americans being used as slaves and the Mexican American war. On the other hand, King was a clergyman. He is considered to be the greatest civil activists in America in the 20th century. He was the leader of African Americans civil rights movement. In the mid 20th century, there was no slavery in the United States but the African Americans were segregated and discriminated by the dominant race.
King mobilized African Americans in protest matches and civil disobedient as a way of fighting for justice in the society (Powell, pp 26). Despite the two activists working in different centuries, they changed the civil rights traditions of civil rights and reforms in the American society. Thoreau was the first person to introduce the idea of civil disobedient as channel of pushing for reforms in the American society. Since the publication of his essay on civil disobedient in the mid 19th century, his ideas have transformed activism in the whole world.
The most famous influence of Thoreau ideas was on King’s letter which he wrote while in prison in Birmingham. In the letter, King states that Thoreau essay convinced him that not cooperating with what is evil is as essential as cooperation with what is good. This is a clear indication that King’s ideas on civil rights movement were directly borrowed from Thoreau’s ideas. The letter did not only support the idea on non violent civil disobedient in human rights protest but also expounded on the ideas introduced by Thoreau in the 19th century (Schroeder, pp 1).
Thought the two activists had different views on the rights and freedom of all in the society, their views were based on the same idea. The basic idea was that the oppressed need to take an active role in the fight against their rights. They were more concerned about the unequal treatment of the minorities in the society either being enslaved or segregated. While Thoreau advocated for personalized rights, King advocated for public awareness of the freedoms and rights for the good of all (Chernus, pp 305).
Though the letter from Birmingham by Martin Luther King Jr. was based on the same idea with the civil disobedient essay by Thoreau, the two authors were different on all aspects. However, this does not negate the fact that both played an important role in securing freedom for the African Americans. Thoreau aided in securing freedom for the fugitive slaves in the 19th century through his strong criticism against slavery while King led non violent protest matches and civil disobedient against the Jim Crows laws that segregated African Americans.
They both held a strong position that unjust laws should be opposed by the masses (Powell, pp 26). The effectiveness of civil disobedient and peaceful direct action in the second half of the 20th century led by King was inspired by the effectiveness of the approach in India led by Gandhi. Thoreau’s ideas had been proved to be effective in India. King reintroduced Thoreau’s ideas into the American protest traditions which were very effective. The legacy of the two great men is still evident in the American society as well as other societies of the world today.
It is common for environmentalists, civil rights activists and same sex marriage supporters to invoke the words of King and Thoreau to defend their positions (Powell, pp 26). It is indisputable that Thoreau in the 19th century and King in the 20th century played an important role in the fight for African American rights. They introduced the idea of civil disobedient in the American society which proved to be effective. Though both of them were radically different, there ideas on civil rights and civil disobedient were very similar.