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

Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago. 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. According to 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. 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 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,” said 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 an intermediary 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, 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 English social reformer, Henry Salt. He introduced them to Gandhi. Russian author, Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe. That's according to literature scholar Walter Harding.

“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 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.

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What is the link between Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • SophiaD-del1
    1/09/2018 - 04:28 p.m.

    I think that this story/article has a very powerful message about standing up. In Henry David Thoreau's essay, he makes many valid points that were used to
    persuade many other people during peaceful protest. Thoreau's essay my not have been appreciated in his lifetime but, it did cause many protesters like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Anti-Nazis and so many others have proof that war, tyranny, and injustice are definitely wrong! *3*

  • JoelP-bro
    2/23/2018 - 01:09 p.m.

    This article tells about a rights leader who was one of the first to protest peacefully on discrimination. He was similar to Mahatmas Gandhi.

  • MaxA-bro1
    2/23/2018 - 01:09 p.m.

    This relates to Henry David and Gandhi because they both fought for freedom. Gandhi fought for Indian rights and David fought fought for society rights.

  • MarshallH-bro
    2/23/2018 - 01:10 p.m.

    I find it interesting that King wasn't the first to start to peacefully protest.

  • EliotW-bro
    2/23/2018 - 01:11 p.m.

    One thing that I found particularly interesting in this essay is how multiple civil rights leaders around the world all took inspiration from a Victorian-Era writer.

  • AshleyW-bro1
    2/23/2018 - 01:12 p.m.

    They both believe that civil rights are important and we should fight for them.

  • SamanthaR-bro2
    2/23/2018 - 01:15 p.m.

    oops better read more carefully next time

  • BrendinG-bro
    2/23/2018 - 01:16 p.m.

    They both wanted to have civil rights and peace for everyone of any race. They both were protesting and fighting for rights.

  • KennedyG-bro
    2/23/2018 - 01:18 p.m.

    I believe this story is is something that everyone should read. These people are the cause that today there is equal rights. Without them we would still have segregation and the world would be unfair. These people Henry David, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, all peacefully protested for equal rights.

  • AlyssaK-bro
    2/23/2018 - 01:19 p.m.

    I believe that this story is very interesting.This really shows how life was then, you can for sure learn a lot from reading this. This is really about how rights were not really a thing back then, and all of the racial differences in the world. They make a big point on how they got people on their side from protest, but it was a peaceful protest.

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