Civil Disobedience In American History
Throughout American history, it is clear that many individuals have fought for
justice in a society that has often denied it. We know this information from
documents written by these individuals expressing their feelings on a certain
subject. On the subject of human rights, two specific men have expanded
their thoughts to make a difference. The very popular Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., whose main philosophy on civil disobedience revolved around
nonviolence, wrote a ?Letter From Birmingham Jail? to eight clergymen
informing them of the situation in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1963.
Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century individualist, wrote an essay called
?Civil Disobedience? in which he explained his reasons for not paying taxes
to a government that was involved in an unjust war with Mexico. Although
these works were written for different causes, the two are similar in some
ways. Both are similar in how they get the reader to see and feel what the
writter sees and feels.
Both men, King and Thoreau, used emotional appeal in their work.
This was used to gain support from the reader by creating a feeling of
sympathy to be felt by the reader. Dr. King?s most emotional section was his
feelings on segregation. His feelings were based on how it was to be black
living in a segregated environment. This was extremely important
considering that he was directing his thoughts to the eight white clergymen.
He started a paragraph referring to the impact of segregation as ?stinging
darts.? The following sentences gave examples of the segregation and what it
put black people through. In one specific sentence, King used the image of
?you? having to tell ?your? young, innocent child that she cannot go to the
amusement park simply because of the color of her skin. King wrote,
?…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering
as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can?t go to the
public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see
tears welling up in ger little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to
colored children…and see her begin to distort her little personality by
unconsciously developing a bitterness to white people…? Most people are
more sensitive toward young children and hate to see their feelings hurt.
Children are also a symbol of the future. Henry Thoreau also used emotional
appeal in ?Civil Disobedience.? During the time he wrote this piece, slavery
was the biggest issue among Americans. He told about the injustice in having
slavery in a civilized society. He repeatedly referred to slavery whenever he
began to talk about the government?s unjust laws. Many who believed in the
abolition of slavery may have sided with Thoreau on some of his feelings
about the government. His thoughts were appealing to many in the North or
Abolitionists. In one section of his essay he wrote, ?When the majority shall
at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are
indifferent to slavery, or because there is little slavery left to be abolished by
One very common feature found in both the letter written by Dr. King
and the essay by Thoreau was that prison played a role in their struggles. It
is logical appeal to the reader to know that these men were real not phony.
They truly believed in what they argued for. Both of these men were
incarcerated for doing what they believed was right. Dr. King was locked up
for protesting (nonviolently) and Thoreau was put in jail for not paying taxes
to the government which he felt was unjust. Martin Luther King Jr. decided
to spend his time in jail writing his letter to the clergymen for support. The
fact that he was prison showed the men that a fellow clergyman did in fact
need help in Birmingham, Alabama. Henry Thoreau deeply anylized his one
night experience. He gave the feeling of total seclusion from the world when
describing his jail cell. He spoke of the walls and door being solid stone and
a few feet thick. He felt that he was treated ?as if I were mere flesh and
blood and bones, to be locked up.?
Dr. King and Henry David Thoreau both also referred to the Bible or
God in their writing. King compared the injustice of the situation in
Birmingham to a similar event in the Bible. He wrote, ?Just as the eighth
century prophets left their little villages and carried out their ?Thus saith the
Lord? far beyond the boundaries of their home town, and just as the Apostle
Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to
practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am
compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.?
He also recalled that civil disobedience was also ?practiced superbly by the
early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating
pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the
Roman Empire.? This appeals to the clergymen directly. The use of what
they primarily stand for only gives them more of a reason to help end
segregation in areas like Birmingham. Thoreau didn?t use the bible to support
his thoughts, but he did mention God a few times in ?Civil Disobedience?.
Rhetorically, Thoreau asked the question (referring to the government),
?Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and
Luther. . .? Thoreau also wrote on Christ?s beliefs and what he said to the
Herodians,- ?if you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, which he
has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly
enjoy the advantages of Caesar?s government, then pay him back some of his
own when he demands it.?
The two men had somewhat different views on majority and minority.
King used minority as an example of an unjust law, when it is denied the right
to vote. They have no chance of even being part of the majority because they
are black. In many southern areas, this was extremely unjust considering that
blacks were not a minority, in fact they were the majority of the people in
Even though there is about a 100 year difference between the times in
which these works were written, they are very similar. Both express feelings
of unjust government. Both men also spent time in jail for the cause that they
believed in. Most importantly, both were wrote to gain support from readers,
and to allow people to see their