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Comparisons on the Advocacies of Henry Thoreau & Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Essay title: Comparisons on the Advocacies of Henry Thoreau & Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There is a higher law than civil law- the law of conscience- and that when these laws are in conflict, it is a citizen’s duty to obey the voice of God within rather than that of the civil authority without,” (Harding 207). As Harding described in his brief explanation of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, there are some instances in which it is necessary to disobey a social law. Martin Luther King, Jr., in addition to Thoreau, reasoned that should a civil law be judged unjust, one had a moral obligation not only to himself but also to those around him to disregard that particular law in exchange for a higher one voiced by God.

The idea of challenging an unreasonable law is central to both King, Jr.’s and Thoreau’s plights, though each have very distinct characteristics unique to themselves. In King, Jr.’s case, he saw segregation and racial discrimination as mistakes on the part of the government and he set out to make substantial changes to the status quo. In doing so, he acted upon Thoreau’s concept that every person retains the right to judge civil laws for decency and credibility. “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” (Birmingham Jail 82). Should one find the law to be in the best interest of each individual as well as society as a whole, he should abide by it and make every effort to live by its standard. But reversely, should the law be found guilty of evil intentions and causing more harm than good, it is the duty of every person under that law to disregard it and make an attempt “to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support,” (Disobedience 6).

As both Thoreau and King, Jr. understood, half-hearted attempts at change were not worth the time nor the effort of the persons involved. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance…,” (Disobeidence 9). Merely proclaiming to the world that a certain civil law should be condemned and disobeyed does not lend any form of aid to the cause. Words do nothing to accomplish the revolution of change, but rather direct actions are needed to push the cause forward. “[…] there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. […] so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood,” (Birmingham Jail 80) Peaceful objection and protest is often times the most influential tool available to enact change.

Thoreau spent a night in jail for his refusal to pay a small tax, and as apart of his protest, he remained in jail to serve out his full sentence. Never did he try to escape. A common parallel can be drawn from Thoreau to King, Jr. in that neither of them attempted to evade punishment after they broke the law. “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” (Birmingham Jail 83). Both men firmly believed that to uphold the integrity of the disobedience meant to accept the full punishment handed down for their

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