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The Philosophy Behind Nonviolent Protest Essay

Henry David Thoreau, Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. have one thing in common: the philosophy of nonviolent protest. All started with a mission to change the way the government treated the people and all made a great impact on the way protests and such civil rights missions were not only accepted by the American public, but taken into account by the law makers.

To see how much of an impact these men made on civil rights, a look will be taken into the actions, attitudes, and beliefs of each man, to compare and contrast how each contributed to the philosophy of nonviolent protest. It can be said that “the assassination of President Kennedy marked a major turning point in American history. In the year following the President’s death, America seemed to turn a corner, to center into a new phase of national existence, a strange new world in which the concerns of 1963 seemed as antiquated as those of 1933 .

” It’s true that violence has taken on a new meaning since the assassination of Kennedy. Never before had the world seen something so brutal done to a man so beloved. Not only was the assassination a turning point in history, but it reminds the public of the way things were—when nonviolent protest had its place and had a greater impact on change. And, from that moment, “the phase of change accelerated horribly. History seemed to run forward like a motion picture with the projector out of control.

Before one’s eyes, weird metamorphoses took place: an insignificant little war in Southeast Asia became a gigantic national enterprise; peaceable Negroes marching on Washington became hostile mobs, burning and looting virtually every major city; college students headed for the Peace Corps…became revolutionaries or hippies. ” It was a shock to the world, changes had been made without notice up until this point and nonviolent protests became a thing of the past.

Even now, protests hold an allure of danger, while nonviolent philosophies may still be considered by many seeking change, the sad fact is that the world changed too much—perhaps, to follow in the steps of the great men who made nonviolent change possible. Perhaps the one man who can be said to have started nonviolent protest is Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is well-known for his 1849 writings entitled “Civil Disobedience,” or, as it was originally published, “Resistance to Civil Government. ” The fact remains that “although seldom mentioned without references to Gandhi or King, ‘Civil Disobedience’ has more history than many suspect .

” Throughout its history, “Civil Disobedience” has been met with differing reactions, “in the 1940’s it was read by the Danish resistance, in the 1950’s it was cherished by those who opposed McCarthyism, in the 1960’s it was influential in the struggle against South African apartheid, and in the 1970’s it was discovered by a new generation of anti-war activists . ” No matter what his work was met with, the truth is that Thoreau’s message was needed, and desired by everyone who knew something was missing. But “ ‘Civil Disobedience’ is not [just] an essay of abstract theory.

It is Thoreau’s extremely personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. There were no income taxes and Thoreau did not own enough land to worry about property taxes; but there was the hated poll tax—a capital tax levied equally on all adults within a community . ” Thoreau wanted to apply his own principles to his daily life, but he, of course, ended up in prison and persecuted for his tax crimes. Another man who was imprisoned for his theories and practices was Cesar Chavez.

Chavez once said that “I had a dream that the only reason the employers were so powerful was not because they in fact had that much power, in terms of dealing with the lives of their workers at will, but what made them truly powerful was that we were weak. And if we could somehow begin to develop some strength among ourselves, I felt that we could begin to equal that, balancing their power in agriculture . ” Chavez dreamed that workers would have more rights, that a union could be formed to care for them, their wages, and their civil rights. Chavez’s dream “inspired an organization that did not look like a labor union.

His vision didn’t include just the traditional bread and butter issues of unionism; it was about reclaiming dignity for people who were marginalized by society . ” Indeed, Chavez did not see a staunch labor union for his workers, he saw a new way of life—freedom filled with dignity, no matter the job. It was well-known that “Chavez placed harsher demands on himself than on anyone else in the movement. In 1968 he fasted (the first of several fasts over his lifetime), to recommit the movement to non-violence. In many ways the fast epitomized Chavez’s approach to social change.

On one level it represented his spiritual values, his willingness to sacrifice and do penance . ” Chavez’s approach was the same as Thoreau’s. He believed that if he wanted something done, and had any theories about it—he would have to commit to it first, with more commitment than he expected of anyone else—and he did. Even more, Chavez had “accomplished something that no one else had ever been able to do; build a union for farm workers. In the process he trained a generation of activists who would apply their skills in other communities and struggles .

” Chavez was unique in this, gaining respect while creating a lasting community and union where the people had the same rights as farm workers as other men did in trade unions. Much can be said about Mahatma Gandhi’s impact on civil rights and nonviolent protest. His story begins in London where he “encountered theosophists, vegetarians, and others who were disenchanted not only with industrialism, but with the legacy of Enlightenment thought. They themselves represented the fringe elements of English society. Gandhi was powerfully attracted to them, as he was to the texts of the major religious traditions .

” And thus began his enterprise into freedom and peace. In fact, Gandhi “initiated the non-cooperation movement, which called upon Indians to withdraw from British institutions, to return honors conferred by the British, and to learn the art of self-reliance; though the British administration was at places paralyzed, the movement was suspended in February 1922 when a score of Indian policemen were brutally killed by a large crowd…Gandhi himself was arrested shortly thereafter, tried on charges of sedition, and sentenced to imprisonment for six years .

” And it wasn’t the last time that Gandhi would spend in prison for choosing to act upon his own nonviolent political views. A well-known incident involving the “salt laws” concluded when Gandhi “picked up a small lump of natural salt, and so gave the signal to hundreds of thousands of people to similarly defy the law, since the British exercised a monopoly on the production and sale of salt. This was the beginning of the civil disobedience movement: Gandhi himself was arrested, and thousands of others were also hauled into jail .

” Again, Gandhi was imprisoned, and knowingly, for choosing to act upon something he felt was unjust. What he did for the people, however, was to show, in a nonviolent method—which was always Gandhi’s way—how to protest without crime, ironically, even though his choice of protest did involve committing a crime. From this moment on, Gandhi became known as the “Father of Freedom,” making his mark in a profound way upon the world of civil disobedience. But a discussion of civil disobedience would be nonexistent without making note of Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr.

“spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Alabama…he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D. C. , of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, ‘I Have a Dream’…he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure .

” Of the men discussed so far, King is perhaps the most inspiring of all. His methods brought the public something never seen before, and he did it with inspiration and profound conviction—which made him all the more powerful. In truth, King “came to the conclusion that the while the power of love was a compelling force when applied to individual conflicts, it could not resolve social problems. He believed the philosophy of ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘love your enemies’ applied only to conflicts between individuals and not racial groups or nations .

” King was like all the others: Gandhi, Chavez, and Thoreau, but he was the first and only to be assassinated for his convictions. King knew that the world that stood before him was resistant to change, and that social problems and civil matters required a different handling than any other matter. In his way, nonviolent protests were the only way to bring about the change he envisioned in his “Dream. ” To finally compare the men, it can be said the nonviolent protesting was the only method that each could see in which to make change without presenting harm for others.

But, none of the men feared for his own personal safety, and they definitely didn’t have a fear of persecution or of being imprisoned for their actions. Henry David Thoreau started the idea of civil rights and nonviolent protests with his work of “Civil Disobedience,” but Martin Luther King Jr. finished it with his speech in front of hundreds of thousands. His speech is so famous it is familiar to the minds of elementary school students.

In fact, King made such an impression on the American public that Black History Month was named, to honor him, and of course, the other prominent people of color who came before and after King to make change within the world. Overall, it can be said that Henry David Thoreau, Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all founders within the movement of civil disobedience, and especially, nonviolent protests. Their philosophies are all the same: equal rights, just treatment of people by the government, and unions to protect and serve the working people.

In true fashion, each man was arrested for his actions, released, and made into a martyr and savior of the people. All started with a mission to change the way the government treated the people and all made a great impact on the way protests and such civil rights missions were not only accepted by the American public, but taken into account by the law makers. And all created a great impact on civil rights and the philosophy of nonviolent protest. Bibliography. Downing, Frederick. Bearing the Cross: A Review. Theology Today, 48 (2), 390-394. Garrow, David. (2004).

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. , and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow. Haberman, Frederick (Ed. ). (1972). Nobel Lectures: Nobel Peace Prize Edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing. Jhaveri, Vithalbhai. (2006). Mahatma Gandhi. UCLA Online. Retrieved May 1, 2009 from the world wide web: http://www. sscnet. ucla. edu/southasia/History/Gandhi/gandhi. html Lenat, Richard. (2009). Civil Disobedience. Thoreau Reader. Retrieved April 30, 2009 from the world wide web: http://thoreau. eserver. org/civil. html McElrath, Jessica. (2000). Martin Luther King’s Philosophy on Nonviolent Resistance. African American History Online.

Retrieved May 1, 2009 from the world wide web: http://afroamhistory. about. com/od/martinlutherking/a/mlks_philosophy. htm McElroy, Wendy. (2005). Henry Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience. ’ Future of Freedom Foundation, reprinted in Thoreau Reader. Retrieved April 30, 2009 from the world wide web: http://thoreau. eserver. org/wendy. html Rubenstein, Richard. (1970). Rebels in Eden: The Structure of Mass Political Violence in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Tejada-Flores, Rick. (2004). Cesar Chavez. PBS Online. Retrieved April 30, 2009 from the world wide web: http://www. pbs. org/itvs/fightfields/cesarchavez. html


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