Martin Luther King Jr Quotes On Civil Disobedience Essay

Henry David Thoreau was born on this day 200 years ago. A few decades later, aged 32, he wrote an essay that fundamentally influenced twentieth-century protest.

"Civil Disobedience," originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government," was written after Thoreau spent a night in the unsavory confines of the Concord, Massachusetts jail–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, a regular tax that everyone had to pay, in six years.

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,” writes the Library of Congress. He was released when a relative paid the tax for him, and went on to write the eminently quotable essay that included the line “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” 

While another line in the essay–"I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’”–is also well known, it was his line of thinking about justice, when he argued that conscience can be a higher authority than government, that stuck with civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi.

“Thoreau was the first American to define and use civil disobedience as a means of protest,” Brent Powell wrote for the magazine of the Organization of American Historians. He began the tradition of non-violent protest that King is best known for continuing domestically. But there was an intermediary in their contact: Gandhi, who 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, writes Thoreau Society member Richard Lenat: the essay “has more history than many suspect,” he writes.

Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience were first spread in the late 1900s by Henry Salt, an English social reformer who introduced them to Gandhi. And Russian author Leo Tolstoy was important to spreading those ideas in continental Europe, wrote literature scholar Walter Harding.

“During World War II, many of the anti-Nazi resisters, particularly in Denmark, adopted Thoreau’s essay as a manual of arms and used it very effectively,” 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 pacificists. 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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30 Quotes on Civil Disobedience By Really Famous Leaders

Quotes on civil disobedience sum up the main ideas and principles of this popular movement that helped the oppressed and weaker sections of society to win their civil rights. They emphasize that one should follow the conscience and not comply to discriminatory laws.
The Salt March in 1930 under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was a major disobedience campaign against the unjust salt laws that imposed a heavy tax on salt production in colonial India. It triggered a widespread discontent among people of all classes against the British rule.
Civil disobedience is an act of protest against the unjust laws of a government. It is a non-violent way to address the unjust state of affairs. Resisting oppressive regimes through peaceful means is a characteristic feature of civil disobedience. The aim is to bring social change and end the unruly system of the powerful authority.

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States against the racial discrimination of African-Americans and the Indian campaign to end the British regime are some examples of civil disobedience that changed the course of history. These popular movements, led by some of the greatest leaders in history brought a radical change to human life. Following are some quotes on civil disobedience by famous leaders.
"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good."
― Martin Luther King Jr.
"If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man."
― Henry David Thoreau
"One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
― Martin Luther King Jr.
"You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it."
― Malcolm X
"An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment."
― Mahatma Gandhi
"All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable."
― Henry David Thoreau
"Civil disobedience has an honorable history, and when the urgency and moral clarity cross a certain threshold, then I think that civil disobedience is quite understandable, and it has a role to play."
― Al Gore
"Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves."
― Henry David Thoreau
"To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men."
― Abraham Lincoln
"Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God."
― Benjamin Franklin
"You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right."
― Rosa Parks
"The civil rights movement did more to free the white man that the black man. ...It freed my soul."
― Joe Biden
"Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."
― Henry David Thoreau
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
― Edmund Burke
"Half a century ago, the amazing courage of Rosa Parks, the visionary leadership of Martin Luther King, and the inspirational actions of the civil rights movement led politicians to write equality into the law and make real the promise of America for all her citizens."
―David Cameron
"Mass civil disobedience is like an earthquake, a sort of general upheaval on the political plane."
― Mahatma Gandhi
"I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving in."
― Rosa Parks
"When a man's conscience and the laws clash, it is his conscience that he must follow."
― Henry David Thoreau
"If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything ... that smacks of discrimination or slander."
― Mary McLeod Bethune
"The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating."
― Cesar Chavez
"Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right."
― Henry David Thoreau
"Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless and corrupt."
― Mahatma Gandhi
"Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing."
― Mahatma Gandhi
"If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so."
― Thomas Jefferson
"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
― Mahatma Gandhi
"If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."
― Henry David Thoreau
"Women have to risk civil disobedience for their rights."
― Sonia Johnson
"As long as the world shall last there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever."
―Clarence Darrow
"I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do."
―Robert A. Heinlein
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
―Bishop Desmond Tutu
Indeed, civil disobedience is an instrument of social change and can be used for betterment of society and individuals. It can help bring awareness about unfair practices meted to the weaker sections of society.

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