Thoreau and Martin Luther King about Society

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Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was in prison. He composed a letter directed to a priest within the human rights movement. His peaceful yet firm letter is a remarkably persuasive tone that signifies a substantial shift in the human rights movement fighting for the full rights of African Americans. In comparison, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, published in February 1848, discusses justice in relation to government. The writer approaches this topic in a different manner.

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He uses rhetorical devices such as pathos, imagery, and symbolism to express his feelings towards the government and his decision to avoid paying poll tax for six years as a form of punishment. On the other hand, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rhetorical devices span metaphor, repetition, and allusion as tools to sway critics of his philosophical views on direct action.

There is a law greater than civil law. It is a citizen’s duty to listen to the voice of God within rather than externally. As seen in “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau argues that people should act according to their conscience, rather than obeying unjust laws. The ideas of both writers are quite similar. They both discuss the role of conscience, and how it can be guided by human nature. For instance, Thoreau believed in defying the law. He encouraged people to “break the law” and to “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” (18). He argues that someone who disobeys an unjust law is a criminal. Apart from this, Thoreau was willing to go to jail instead of paying his taxes. In a similar vein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, argues in favor of exercising one’s conscience. For instance, he defended the right for nonviolent protest, stating, “all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality…” (226, 211-213). King’s defense against charges of hypocrisy argues that one should follow the laws that can benefit them rather than breaking them. This, he suggests, is the only path to bring the required change through nonviolent means.

He reveals that the unjust law “gives a false sense of superiority within the lily-white, a false sense of inferiority.” His use of logos clearly dismisses simplicity and talks with the assumption that the audience accepts the validity of Christian morality. It demands that one ought to apply morality to various issues. Throughout his use of Logos and Ethos, he asserts, “The white moderate must understand that this tension within the south is a necessary part of the transition from an unpleasant ornamental piece and accepted unjust fabric, to a substantive and positive peace. In this peace, all men respect the dignity and worth of human personality” (228, 302-306). King criticizes the opposition of the white priesthood, which appeared as though they were against the movement. People should follow their conscience since they are all being treated differently, leading some people to be influenced not by their conscience, but by the government’s word. This negatively affects multiple people and positively affects the “superior race”. King reviews the benefits of people using their conscience and the consequences of not using it, which can force everyone to rethink their choices and remember their morals.

Similarly, Thoreau argued for the exercise of conscience. For instance, in his “Civil Disobedience,” he presents the results for people who follow their conscience, “the mass of men serve the state, not as men mainly, but as machines…in most cases there is no free exercise of the judgment or of the conscience…are on level with wood and earth and stones…they have the same kind of worth only as horses and dogs” (226, bracket 5, 90-98). According to Thoreau, men who perform their duties like machines do so without thought, a conscience, or real concern for the task. Such passivity allows the government to control them easily, without them earning any genuine respect. People without a conscience are considered as unimportant because they are simple to manage and lack the courage to oppose the government. Thoreau warns that they may forget their ability to distinguish right from wrong. He also notes that “There are not one hundred thousand politicians in the South, but one hundred thousand merchants and farmers…more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not ready to do justice to the slaves and to Mexico…” (228, bracket 10, 167-171).

Thoreau and King highlight the consequences of disregarding what is right and choosing wrong, which isn’t beneficial for anyone. They make various theoretical claims about democracy and the relationship between citizens and the government. They believe that the government should be guided by its citizens’ conscience and that these citizens should express their opinions about an unjust, racist government. These ideals and the need for a strong conscience are fundamental to establishing a safe and unbiased government and society.

The essays from Martin Luther King, Jr., namely “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Henry David Thoreau’s discourse on direct action demonstrate how one can stand firm against injustice. Both authors weave a persuasive narrative through their writings. Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., write about the unfairness of state laws, the concepts of right and wrong, and evince awareness of human rights. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a religious, peaceful man who rallied Americans to unite against injustice for the greater good and the future of America. Meanwhile, Henry David Thoreau wrote about his own individual rights and those of others, protesting against illegitimate government tax laws.

Thoreau questioned,”Can there not be a government in which majorities do not dictate right and wrong, but conscience does? Shouldn’t the majority only decide on matters that are subject to the rule of advantage? Must citizens ever, for even a moment, or in the slightest degree, surrender their conscience to the legislator? Isn’t every man first endowed with a conscience? I believe that we should be men first, and subjects later. It is more important to cultivate a respect for rightness, over the law” (323), challenging why we must follow and never question laws put in place by the majority in government. Are we not individuals with a conscience to distinguish between right and wrong? Thoreau believes that everyone should be an individual, not under the control of government. Both Thoreau and Dr. King vehemently opposed many a law imposed by the government that lacked a moral code for certain classes of citizens.

Thoreau also states, “the best government is one that governs least of all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will create” (322). Thoreau believed the best government is one that doesn’t impose itself but allows people to live and think freely. Such a government would eventually serve and represent the people best.

Both essays specialize in the mutual topics of morality and justice and use these topics to challenge and inspire their audience to, at times, defy the government in order to establish the required justice. Although Thoreau and King both address these topics of morality and justice throughout their essays, their writings are in no way similar in writing styles, tones, or goals. King speaks to his readers about the injustice being served to African Americans specifically. He uses an emotional appeal as he pleads with his readers to take action to end segregation. This emotional appeal, combined with his optimism for freedom, sets him and his writing apart from that of Thoreau. Thoreau’s essay, on the other hand, is more critical of the unfair American government. For instance, by saying “the mass of men,” Thoreau implies that most citizens, not only jailers, army members, and other groups he names, serve the government in one way or another. The word “serves” suggests a lack of freedom, and “machines” suggests a lack of control and consciousness. Without consciousness, men commit their bodies to unjust service of the State. Even men, who do not consider themselves slaves, free men, serve the State and are not even aware of it. Thoreau asks readers to consider what freedom and slavery really mean.

Unlike King, Thoreau speaks to his readers in a distressed, aggravated tone as he reprimands them for following unjust laws. King tries to explain that justice encompasses a sense of morality by saying, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’” (16). Since King was a minister, he constantly refers back to the Bible for support for justice and morality; however, there is no recurring religious reference. When looking at justice and morality, it’s easy to associate the two as being closely connected, yet they are not the same. Thoreau’s perspective is very different from King’s because he presents more than one goal. Not only does he describe the government’s unfair laws, but he also educates his readers on how and why to revolt and to bring an end to the status quo. In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrated courage in many ways. The fact that racism was a significant part of life that African-Americans had to overcome, Dr. King showed great courage by standing up for what he believed was right. In his letter, he mentioned that there was an agreement to remove racially discriminatory signs from stores and the merchants agreed to do so.

The promise was broken, and some actions we took were never reversed. Shortly after, those that were removed were reestablished. Once these signs were observed, Dr. King and his followers began hosting workshops on non-violent actions. In these workshops, they frequently asked themselves if they could accept the punishment that was about to befall them, and whether they could do so with no regrets or violent reactions. The fact that he stood up for what he believed and demonstrated against severe injustices inherent in white society displays the moral courage that Dr. King exemplified. Dr. King is indeed a shining example of moral courage, as he challenged racially discriminatory laws defiantly. They both discuss similar topics of morality and justice under the rule of government, and they are both adept at energising and motivating people, elucidating how and why individuals should take nonviolent actions against unjust laws. Through their powerful examples and insightful analogies, we learn the importance of fighting for justice and maintaining moral integrity. Most importantly, both writers argue in favour of direct action, to inspire the fight for freedom against the government, and to guarantee that the God-given rights and the right to individuality of the people are preserved for future generations.

The most impactful was the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ by Martin Luther King, with his notions about an equitable government and society. For instance, although King courageously fought for equal rights and equality, Thoreau was fighting because he believed the taxes were too demanding. Moreover, Dr. King effectively illustrated the distressing treatment of African Americans. Thoreau, on the other hand, showed how different methods were applied to his cause, despite his focus being on unfair taxation. To this day, both King and Thoreau’s works remain pertinent in our and society. In conclusion, both writers, Henry David Thoreau – the original author of ‘Civil Disobedience’ – and Martin Luther King Jr., with his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, have made a significant impact on history through their perspectives on justice for everyone.”

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Thoreau and Martin Luther King About Society. (2021, May 27). Retrieved from