Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago. A few decades after he was born at age 32, he wrote an essay. It strongly influenced twentieth-century protest.
“Civil Disobedience,” was first titled “Resistance to Civil Government.” It was written after Thoreau spent a night in the unsavory confines of a jail. It was in Concord, Massachusetts. It was an activity likely to inspire anyone to civil disobedience. The reason he was in jail was something which the philosopher found to be equally maddening. 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. “He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico.” That's according to the Library of Congress. He was released when a relative paid the tax for him. He went on to write an notably quotable essay. It 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. Those leaders included 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.” That's according to Brent Powell. He wrote for the magazine of the Organization of American Historians. He began the tradition of non-violent protest. King is best known for continuing that tradition domestically. But there was a g0-between in their contact. Gandhi 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. That's according to Richard Lenat. He is a Thoreau Society member. He wrote that Thoreau’s essay “has more history than many suspect.”
Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience were first spread in the late 1900s by Henry Salt. He was an English social reformer. He introduced them to Gandhi. Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe. That's according to literature scholar Walter Harding. Tolstoy was a Russian author.
“Many of the anti-Nazi resisters adopted Thoreau’s essay. It became a manual of arms. They used it very effectively. This happened during World War II. This was particularly true in Denmark.” he writes.
In America, anarchists like Emma Goldman used Thoreau’s tactics. She used it to oppose the World War I draft. Those tactics were used again by World War II-era pacifists. But it wasn’t until King came along that the essay became truly important in the U.S., Harding wrote. Vietnam War protestors also came to use its ideas, and others.
Thoreau was “ignored in his own lifetime.” This was despite his global influence later. That's according to Harding.
It’s not even known exactly who paid his taxes for him. That's according to scholar Barbara L. Packer. The writer’s jailer recalled that he had just reached home for the evening when a messenger told him that a woman had appeared. She had “Mr. Thoreau’s tax." He remembered that she was wearing a veil. This story was told during an interview 50 years after the incident.
“Unwilling to go to the trouble of unlocking the prisoners he had just locked up, [the jailer] waited till morning to release Thoreau. He remembered, he was ‘mad as the devil when I turned him loose,’” Packer wrote.