Civil Disobedience in American History Essay

Throughout American history, it is clear that many individuals have fought forjustice in a society that has often denied it. We know this information fromdocuments written by these individuals expressing their feelings on a certainsubject. On the subject of human rights, two specific men have expandedtheir thoughts to make a difference. The very popular Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., whose main philosophy on civil disobedience revolved aroundnonviolence, wrote a “Letter From Birmingham Jail” to eight clergymeninforming them of the situation in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1963.

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Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century individualist, wrote an essay called”Civil Disobedience” in which he explained his reasons for not paying taxesto a government that was involved in an unjust war with Mexico. Althoughthese works were written for different causes, the two are similar in someways. Both are similar in how they get the reader to see and feel what thewritter sees and feels.

Both men, King and Thoreau, used emotional appeal in their work.

This was used to gain support from the reader by creating a feeling ofsympathy to be felt by the reader. Dr. King’s most emotional section was hisfeelings on segregation. His feelings were based on how it was to be blackliving in a segregated environment. This was extremely importantconsidering that he was directing his thoughts to the eight white clergymen.

He started a paragraph referring to the impact of segregation as “stingingdarts.” The following sentences gave examples of the segregation and what itput black people through. In one specific sentence, King used the image of”you” having to tell “your” young, innocent child that she cannot go to theamusement park simply because of the color of her skin. King wrote,”…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammeringas you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to thepublic amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and seetears welling up in ger little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed tocolored children…and see her begin to distort her little personality byunconsciously developing a bitterness to white people…”Most people aremore sensitive toward young children and hate to see their feelings hurt.

Children are also a symbol of the future. Henry Thoreau also used emotionalappeal in “Civil Disobedience.” During the time he wrote this piece, slaverywas the biggest issue among Americans. He told about the injustice in havingslavery in a civilized society. He repeatedly referred to slavery whenever hebegan to talk about the government’s unjust laws. Many who believed in theabolition of slavery may have sided with Thoreau on some of his feelingsabout the government. His thoughts were appealing to many in the North orAbolitionists. In one section of his essay he wrote, “When the majority shallat length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they areindifferent to slavery, or because there is little slavery left to be abolished bytheir vote.”One very common feature found in both the letter written by Dr. Kingand the essay by Thoreau was that prison played a role in their struggles. Itis logical appeal to the reader to know that these men were real not phony.

They truly believed in what they argued for. Both of these men wereincarcerated for doing what they believed was right. Dr. King was locked upfor protesting (nonviolently) and Thoreau was put in jail for not paying taxesto the government which he felt was unjust. Martin Luther King Jr. decidedto spend his time in jail writing his letter to the clergymen for support. Thefact that he was prison showed the men that a fellow clergyman did in factneed help in Birmingham, Alabama. Henry Thoreau deeply anylized his onenight experience. He gave the feeling of total seclusion from the world whendescribing his jail cell. He spoke of the walls and door being solid stone anda few feet thick. He felt that he was treated “as if I were mere flesh andblood and bones, to be locked up.”Dr. King and Henry David Thoreau both also referred to the Bible orGod in their writing. King compared the injustice of the situation inBirmingham to a similar event in the Bible. He wrote, “Just as the eighthcentury prophets left their little villages and carried out their Thus saith theLord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home town, and just as the ApostlePaul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ topractically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too amcompelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.”He also recalled that civil disobedience was also “practiced superbly by theearly Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciatingpain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of theRoman Empire.” This appeals to the clergymen directly. The use of whatthey primarily stand for only gives them more of a reason to help endsegregation in areas like Birmingham. Thoreau didn’t use the bible to supporthis thoughts, but he did mention God a few times in “Civil Disobedience”.

Rhetorically, Thoreau asked the question (referring to the government),”Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus andLuther. . .” Thoreau also wrote on Christ’s beliefs and what he said to theHerodians,- “if you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, which hehas made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladlyenjoy the advantages of Caesar’s government, then pay him back some of hisown when he demands it.”The two men had somewhat different views on majority and minority.

King used minority as an example of an unjust law, when it is denied the rightto vote. They have no chance of even being part of the majority because theyare black. In many southern areas, this was extremely unjust considering thatblacks were not a minority, in fact they were the majority of the people inBirmingham.

Even though there is about a 100 year difference between the times inwhich these works were written, they are very similar. Both express feelingsof unjust government. Both men also spent time in jail for the cause that theybelieved in. Most importantly, both were wrote to gain support from readers,and to allow people to see their

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