Discovering The “Correct” Role of Government
Unlike that of any other leading nation in the world, American government has always guaranteed the preservation of justice for all men. However, in their works civil disobedience and “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Henry Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., excoriate the government’s use of the term “all men,” which fails to uphold the all-inclusiveness it implies, as it excludes many subclasses of people. They assert that it is not within the governments’ rights to require an individual to compromise his or her morality. Instead, the correct role of government is to remain constant and relative as a protector of every citizen’s innate rights to justice, morality and individuality, despite how society may change.
In his essay Civil Disobedience, Henry Thoreau cynically observes that government is typically more harmful than it is helpful, as it is an agent of corruption. Members of the army, he notes, are “a common and natural result of an undue respect for law,” as they march “against their wills” and “against their common sense and consciences” (Thoreau 768).
Thus, the men who strictly abide by the law do so immorally. Because of this, he encourages citizens to “break the law” which “requires [one] to be the agent of injustice to another” (773).
... not being a member of an unjust institution (like the government). Thoreau further argues that the United States fits his criteria for ... is right and not to follow the law dictated by the majority. When a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow ... the law and distance themselves from the government in general. A person is not obligated to ...
A law that requires a person to act against his or her conscience, therefore, is unjust, and an unjust law does not deserve the respect of a just law. Thoreau advocates reform of unjust laws, noting that if reformers were to “withdraw their support… from the [state] government” (773), injustice could be eliminated; he asserts that “what is once well done is done forever.” (774).
He authorizes “breaking” unjust laws in order to forever obtain justice, but with an understanding that disobeying the law can result in consequence. Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay his poll tax for six years, even though “the State met” him previously, saying “’Pay… or be locked up in the jail’” (776); he still refused to pay, but says he was actually “refus[ing] allegiance to the state;” had he “trace[d] the effects of [his] allegiance,” he notes, he would have found it “buy[ing] a man or a musket to shoot one with” (779).
Thoreau establishes credibility by explaining his refusal to support slavery and war through the payment of poll taxes, and accepting arrest as a punishment. He notes that, “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (774).
He clearly asserts that if a government incriminates those who pursue justice, than the only just people are criminals.
Over one hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. applies the same theory to a different model: discrimination against blacks in the South, namely Birmingham, Alabama. After being criticized by seven clergy members for organizing peaceful protest, King writes “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” elucidating his right to protest the unjust laws and traditional beliefs of Birmingham society. Influenced by Thoreau, King organizes a peaceful demonstration to finally surface a tender tension between whites and blacks in order to accomplish a necessary negotiation. King, like Thoreau, is willing to “accept blows without retailing” and “endure the ordeal of jail” (King, 2) to attain rights for Negroes. Both King and Thoreau recognize that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (1), and despite the centurial difference in time, Thoreau and King prove that justice is a right which is relevant whenever the government does not preserve justice.
... Letter from Birmingham Jail” he exposes the hypocrisy of the South and expresses his willingness to break an unjust law to ... bars of his prison in his letter from Birmingham jail. Martin Luther King addresses the concerns and criticisms of his fellow ... paragraph 6) In response to criticism from eight clergymen of Birmingham, King details the process of preparation for the nonviolent protest that ...
Thoreau and King criticize American democracy, as well, for limiting suffrage in order to manipulate its laws. The majority of eligible members of a state limited voting qualifications in order to exclude the majority of the state, and thus institute unjust laws that encroached upon the rights of others without having to adhere to them themselves. King specifically questions the ability of “any law enacted under such circumstances [to] be considered democratically structured” (King, 4).
Recognizing the majority as the source of power and authority results in conformity, thus empowering the government with the right to compel automatic compliance. By conforming, the individual compromises the innate right to his or her own opinion and conscience, as well as his or her ability to challenge the government. All government is contemptuous, as asserted by Thoreau, which does not “recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived” (Thoreau, 782).
Thus he argues all political decisions should be made reverent to the conscience of an individual and have the ability to maintain any status quo because a government that requires a person to act against his or her conscience during any period of time is unjust.
All in all, Henry Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience is one that has influenced many other historical figures who have been able to peacefully transform the government. His influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. over one hundred years later greatly contributed to King’s success. In their works Civil Disobedience and “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Thoreau and King describe how they each found themselves able to claim their innate rights after transforming the government. They affirm that a government’s correct role is to remain constant and relative as a protector of every citizen’s innate rights to justice, morality and individuality, despite how society may change.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]” 16 April 1963. My Dear Fellow clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your … www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles…/Letter_Birmingham.html
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins.
... , because of their shallow understanding. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Dr. Martin Luther King reveals a learned man who presents himself as ... speeches on the civil rights movement, but one piece stands out as one of his best writings. Letter from Birmingham was an ... fought for justice. His Letter from Birmingham Jail, one of the great documents of the civil rights movement, contains a harrowing and ...