Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses a meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on May 27, 1966. Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images
When you hear the phrase civil disobedience, you may immediately think of Martin Luther King Jr. The nonviolent demonstrations he led against racist policies in the U.S. are remembered as some of the defining events of the Civil Rights Movement. But according to King, his approach to resisting injustice came straight from the playbook of a 19th-century philosopher.
Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau brought the idea of passive resistance to the mainstream with his 1849 essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” When a young King read the piece as a college student in the 1940s, his worldview shifted.
He later wrote in his autobiography:
“Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.”
King was already invested in racial justice at that point in his life, and Thoreau’s writing showed him a path toward fighting for it. Reflections of Thoreau’s philosophy can be seen in the reverend’s activism work throughout the 1960s. He further explained the impact the writer had on him, writing:
“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before.”
Like Thoreau, King spent time in jail resisting the laws and institutions he deemed evil. A sit-in at a Georgia restaurant, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and a demonstration in Birmingham are a few of the nonviolent protests that contributed to King’s 30-odd arrests. He even used his time behind bars to further his cause. In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote about the need for average citizens to take action against unjust laws. He concluded his treatise by saying:
“I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”
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