Civil Disobedience a Century Before

3). For both Thoreau and King, the matter of unjust laws was urgent. In his speech delivered during the March on Washington, King stated, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negros legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality,” (“I Have a Dream”). A century earlier, Thoreau advocated the expedient breaking of an unjust law. Of unjust laws Thoreau stated, “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law,” (“Civil Disobedience” Part 2, para. 5).

King draws directly from Thoreaus “Civil Disobedience,” pointing out the urgency to break unjust laws in order to transform the very ethical foundations of the society. “And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges,” (“I Have a Dream”). Kings “whirlwinds of revolt” are precisely what Thoreau called the “counter friction to stop the machine,” (“Civil Disobedience” Part 2, para. 5). Thoreau would have commended the March on Washington as a large-scale method of invigorating the social order and creating a “more perfect union.”

Thoreaus personal means of civil disobedience was to shun the poll tax; for Thoreau, paying taxes to an unjust state is condoning injustice. Thoreau was imprisoned for his offense yet stood his ground. King was likewise held in prison, from where he penned some of his most influential writings including the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Nowhere in “Civil Disobedience” does Thoreau advocate armed resistance; it is as if Thoreau understands that with an effective campaign of peaceful protest that great revolutions are possible. King understood the power of civil disobedience to move the vast and seemingly impenetrable forces of a government backed by military power.

The march on Washington was a massive demonstration of unarmed, peaceful resistance. The event was an affirmation of the individuals power of ethical certainty over the governments tyranny. King stated in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Both Thoreau and King operated within the framework of the essential structure of a government. Thoreau admits, “Seen from a lower point-of-view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them,” (“Civil Disobedience” Part 3, paral 14). During Kings time even more so than during Thoreaus, the need for government was an imperative. The population of the United States had increased greatly over that century, and complete anarchy would have proved disastrous. It was not Kings intent to overthrow the government of the United States but simply to make that government more perfect. It was Kings objective, moreover, to ensure that “all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” (“I Have a Dream”).

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream” Speech transcript available online at

Lenat, Richard. Thoreau Reader. Retrieved online 3 Aug 2010 from

McElroy, Wendy. “Henry Thoreau and Civil Disobedience” Thoreau Reader. Retrieved 3 Aug 2010 from

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Text online retrieved 3 Aug 2010 from

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