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In the year 2000, one can go to most any high school football game and observe a ritual that is becoming more and more widespread and symbolic in meaning to its participants. Before the football game begins, the Star Spangled Banner is played and sung, the flag is raised, and each schools band plays their Alma Mater. But where in years past there would have been a stadium-wide prayer for the safety and happiness of players, students, and fans, there is naught but silence. During the few moments where a prayer would have been given, one can see small groups of high school students trickling down out of the bleachers and onto the track, where they come together in a circular huddle to make a statement.
An array of groups is represented; one can see cheerleaders in their suits, band members in their uniforms, even students in their plainclothes melding together in this group to have their pre-game prayer. Although the law has made it known that prayers before high school football games are unacceptable, these students are taking a stand and making their opinions known through civil disobedience. The issue of prayer at high school football games is but one of many issues today that calls individuals to civil disobedience. But this concept of civil disobedience is not a solely modern one; as long as there have been governments and laws and systems for individuals to control themselves and one another, there has been civil disobedience. Both Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. were advocates of civil disobedience.
In their writings, Civil Disobedience and Letter from Birmingham Jail they both approach civil disobedience as an honorable way of maintaining personal integrity, and as an incendiary device to ignite the flames of revolution and change. In Thoreau's time, the abolition of slavery was a contemporary and hugely important issue. Similarly, in Kings time, the battle raged against the segregation of blacks and whites. They both lived in times of civil unrest; during their lives, the country was torn and separated over issues that, to this day, are remembered as some of the most controversial issues America has ever had to face.
Despite the fact that their ways of thinking made them part of a minority, each man stood firmly rooted in his beliefs, and though they faced consequences such as imprisonment and death, they didnt sway in their pursuit of truth and justice. Although these men were very similar in opinions and in values, they were different in some ways as well. Their agendas differed; in Civil Disobedience, Thoreau, for the most part, spoke out against too much government, while in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King argued against the injustice of slavery. King also faced tougher consequences than Thoreau; while Thoreau spent one night in jail for his cause, King was martyred for his. But despite these differences, these two men had one main common denominator: through their civil disobedience, they were catalysts of revolutionary change in American society.
Henry David Thoreau obviously had strong feelings about the concept of civil disobedience; he titled his lecture / essay Civil Disobedience. Thoreau begins his essay by saying, I heartily accept the motto- That government is best which governs least, and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have (127). In his opinion, government doesnt help to further the cause of making America a greater nation; in fact, many times government impedes progress. He says, It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West.
It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more if the government had not sometimes gotten in its way (127 - 128). Thus, Thoreau exhorts, there is nothing wrong with challenging that which we call our government; there is no fault in being civilly disobedient. He feels that a respect for justice and what is intrinsically and morally right should come before a respect for the law. He proposes, It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.
The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice (128). Thoreau also addresses what usually happens to those who take part in civil disobedience in saying A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it (129). He also shows that even though one might believe in what is right, not taking direct action in the pursuit of what is right is hypocrisy. To illustrate this, he writes, The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the government which makes the war (133). To summarize the assertions he makes in his essay, Thoreau includes this in his closing paragraph; There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly (146). Thoreau's conviction in the power and authority of the individual and his belief in the pursuit of truth and justice are what justifies civil disobedience in his eyes.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. offers explanations for the actions he has taken. First of all, he explains why he is in Birmingham; he says, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here (154). He also expresses that he is cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states (154). Because of this, he cannot sit idly in Atlanta while there is injustice in Birmingham. He then goes on to explain the steps of and reasons for his nonviolent campaign.
This nonviolent campaign was Kings civil disobedience. He gives more than adequate reason behind why he and his fellow Negroes could wait no longer for their chance at equality, for the inception of their nonviolent campaign. He asserts, We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed justice too long delayed is justice denied (157). So, since they cannot wait any longer, and since freedom must be demanded by the oppressed, they must take action in the form of civil disobedience.
Like Thoreau, King also gives the pursuit of truth and what is right as a valid reason for civil disobedience; in the context of his essay, what is right is the end of segregation. He states, there are two types of laws: just and unjust an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority (158 - 159). Further on in his letter, King gives another justification for his taking action through civil disobedience. He offers that time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively (162).
He obviously believed in using his time constructively. Ultimately, what his letter comes down to is this final explanation; he took action through his nonviolent campaign and his civil disobedience because despite what the law says, slavery is morally wrong. Just like Thoreau, King believed that the pursuit of righteousness is much more important than adhering to mans laws, many of which are unjust by his definition. Civil disobedience, according to these men, is an honorable undertaking.
It is refusal to adhere to governmental dictations because perhaps these governmental dictations are morally wrong or inhumane and unjust. It has a voice; it takes a stand; it speaks volumes more than words themselves. It is something to live by, and in Kings case, something to die for. It is what happens when one stays true to himself and his beliefs, despite what the institutions of government and law have to say about it. Civil disobedience when carried out for the right reasons, in my opinion, is praiseworthy, blameless, and inherently righteous.
Bibliography: Works Cited King, Jr. , Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail. A World of Ideas. Ed.
Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 151 - 169. Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. A World of Ideas.
Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 123 - 146.
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