Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau
Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March on Washington in 1963. (Tullio Saba/Flickr/Library of Congress)
Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau
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Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago, on July 12, 1817. A few decades later, at age 32, he wrote an essay that fundamentally influenced twentieth-century protest.

“Civil Disobedience,” was originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government.” It was written after Thoreau spent a night in the unsavory confines of the Concord, Massachusetts jail. It was an activity likely to inspire anyone to civil disobedience. The cause of his incarceration was something which the philosopher found to be equally galling - he hadn’t paid his poll tax in six years. It was a regular tax that everyone had to pay.

But Thoreau wasn’t just shirking, says the Library of Congress, “He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico.” He was released when a relative paid the tax for him. He went on to write an eminently quotable essay that included this line: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” 

Another another line in the essay is also well know. It states: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least.’” It was his line of thinking about justice that stuck with civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. He argued that conscience can be a higher authority than government. 

“Thoreau was the first American to define and use civil disobedience as a means of protest,” Brent Powell wrote for the magazine of the Organization of American Historians. He began the tradition of non-violent protest that King is best known for continuing domestically. But there was an intermediary in their contact: Gandhi, who said that Thoreau’s ideas “greatly influenced” his ideas about protest.

But it wasn’t just these famous figures who rallied around Thoreau’s battle cry, writes Thoreau Society member Richard Lenat: the essay - has more history than many suspect,” he writes.

Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience were first spread in the late 1900s by Henry Salt, an English social reformer who introduced them to Gandhi. And Russian author Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe, wrote literature scholar Walter Harding.

“During World War II, many of the anti-Nazi resisters, particularly in Denmark, adopted Thoreau’s essay as a manual of arms and used it very effectively,” he writes.

In America, anarchists like Emma Goldman used Thoreau’s tactics to oppose the World War I draft, he writes, and those tactics were used again by World War II-era pacifists. But it wasn’t until King came along that the essay became truly prominent in the U.S., Harding wrote. Vietnam War protestors also came to use its ideas, and others.  

Despite this later global influence, writes Harding, Thoreau was “ignored in his own lifetime.” It’s not even known exactly who paid his taxes for him, wrote scholar Barbara L. Packer. In an interview 50 years after the incident, the writer’s jailer recalled that he had just reached home for the evening when a messenger told him that a woman, wearing a veil, had appeared with “Mr. Thoreau’s tax.”

“Unwilling to go to the trouble of unlocking the prisoners he had just locked up, [the jailer] waited till morning to release Thoreau - who, he remembered, was ‘mad as the devil when I turned him loose,’” Packer wrote.

Source URL: https://www.tweentribune.com/article/teen/martin-luther-king-jr-found-inspiration-henry-david-thoreau/

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What is the link between Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi?
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COMMENTS (62)
  • ChloeR-del1
    1/09/2018 - 07:46 p.m.

    He argued that conscience can be a higher authority than government and the share the same link between Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi. Gandhi said he was greatly influenced about his protests.

  • AkshayB-del
    1/09/2018 - 07:50 p.m.

    This article is about Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau. “Resistance to Civil Government.” It was written after Thoreau spent a night in the unsavory confines of the Concord, Massachusetts jail. He was put to jail because he hadn’t paid his poll tax in six years. It was a regular tax that everyone had to pay. He argued that conscience can be a higher authority than government. He began the tradition of non-violent protest that King is best known for continuing domestically.

  • JustinM-del
    1/09/2018 - 08:18 p.m.

    this is about Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago, on July 12, 1817. A few decades later, at age 32, he wrote an essay that fundamentally influenced twentieth-century protest.

  • JasminderK-del
    1/09/2018 - 08:27 p.m.

    This article talks about Henry David Thoreau, a man born 200 years ago who wrote the essay "civil disobedience" after spending a night in a Massachusetts jail for not paying his poll tax. This essay influenced many civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi.

  • EoinM-del
    1/09/2018 - 08:44 p.m.

    Ghandis ideas very much influened his. That is there connection

  • RushB-del
    1/09/2018 - 09:17 p.m.

    David Thoreau brought a great positive influence to everyone and helped shape the society that we live in now. He did this with an essay where he wrote how he felt and how the current state of the world is, for example he would write things like
    “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Sentences like this are what influenced peaceful freedom fighters like Martin Luther King JR to fight for whats right.

  • CherM-del
    1/09/2018 - 09:19 p.m.

    Thoreau believed that consistence had higher authority then government. He was the first American to use civil disobedience to protest against the government. He inspired many others like Martian Luther King Jr and Gandhi. His idea was spread by Henry Salt in the 1900s and made an impact in shaping history by inspiring and leading people to a better government and to a society that we have today.

  • OlivierJ-del
    1/09/2018 - 10:16 p.m.

    I found this article interesting. I never knew that Martin Luther was inspired by Henry David Thoreau. I have never heard of Henry David Thoreau and I wonder why he wasn't always credited.

  • NathalyP-del
    1/09/2018 - 10:33 p.m.

    The main idea of this article is about how Martin Luther King Jr. found inspiration from Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi. Thoreau was an inspiration from an inspiring essay he wrote.

  • JaidenV-del
    1/09/2018 - 10:43 p.m.

    The influence he had was great, because that was the future to people like M.L.K., seeing a brighter and better future

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