The Legacy of Civil Disobedience: From Thoreau to Gandhi and King

Civil disobedience is specified as the refusal to follow specific laws or governmental demands for the function of affecting legislation or government policy. It is defined by the employment of nonviolent strategies such as boycotting, picketing, and nonpayment of taxes. Civil disobedience is a nonviolent act of demonstration, which is triggered by a moral belief that a law is incorrect or otherwise called unconstitutional. In the 19th century, the American author Henry David Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience," an essential essay justifying such action which began the boycotting and other nonviolent actions.

Civil disobedience was begun by the American author Henry David Thoreau. Henry Thoreau established the contemporary theory behind the practice of civil disobedience in his essay, "Civil Disobedience," originally titled "Resistance to Civil Federal Government," which was published in 1849. The idea behind this essay was that of self-reliance, and how one is in ethically great standing as long as one can "leave another guy's back." The essay also mentioned that someone must not have to physically fight the government, but one need to not support it.

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Civil disobedience can likewise be distinguished from other active types of protest, such as rioting because of its passivity and non-violence. This essay has actually had a broad impact on many later professionals of civil disobedience.

Henry David Thoreau protested the Mexican-American War and paying taxes, but his essay led to other protests as well. Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. found Thoreau’s essay very inspiring. Thoreau believed morality is more important than legality as shown below: “Must a citizen .

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. . resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a 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.”

Gandhi found guidance in Thoreau’s words and freed India from British rule. Martin Luther King Jr. also used Thoreau’s words to oppose racial segregation in the south of the United States of America. Both of these men used nonviolent strategies to secure the rights of people not being treated equally especially in a white-dominated societies. These two men dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom. Gandhi and King became towering figures in modern history because they took Thoreau’s words and learned from it. Gandhi and King were both assassinated because they challenged old prejudices and sought a better way of life for oppressed people.

Civil disobedience was exercised by Mahatma Gandhi while the struggle for independence in India continued in the twentieth century. Civil disobedience was also practiced by some members of the civil rights movement in the United States, notably Martin Luther King, Jr., to challenge segregation of public facilities; a common tactic of these civil rights supporters was the sit-in. King defended the use of civil disobedience in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Human rights activists have often challenged unfair social policies or business practices. Their methods are nonviolent and may include a variety of marches, rallies, and demonstrations. Instead of fighting back when force is used against them, activists meet that force with passive resistance. In every case, the goal is to dramatize injustice in as public a manner as possible. The activists began the crusade by breaking laws that separated people by race. Some examples are sit-ins at lunch counters, lining up at whites-only counters, and refused to sit in the rear “colored” section of the city buses. Hundreds went to jail for these actions, but the protests were never stopped.

India went through the same type of dedication and hard times for its independence that the activists that followed Martin Luther King Jr. had gone through for equal rights. As leader of the movement, Mohandas K. Gandhi was firmly committed to nonviolence. Gandhi believed it was not just a tactic for achieving social change; it was a way of life. That is why Gandhi is so well remembered. Gandhi called Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” essay “a masterly treatise” which “left a deep impression on me.” Later on Gandhi became unsatisfied with the term “passive resistance.” He noted, “In a meeting of Europeans I found that the term “passive resistance” was too narrowly construed, that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred, and that it could finally [show] itself as violence”

Gandhi was so determined to make a change; he put out a call for suggestions for a new word to describe the Indian struggle. The eventual result was satyagraha, which combines “truth” and “firmness.” This implies that resistance to evil and injustice is active rather than just passive. Nonviolence and passivity were finally recognized as not being the same thing.

Gandhi’s special gift was his ability to use spiritual methods to achieve political goals, using his moral authority to oppose many forms of injustice. He not only took on the British Empire in the cause of political freedom, he also challenged the Hindu caste system in the cause of human equality. Also, he led a protest against the British salt tax in India. He marched to the ocean and making salt illegally, then encouraged the equally illegal sale of untaxed salt all over India. Activities like these gave him the title Mahatma, meaning “great soul.” In time that title replaced his name because of the powerful leader he was.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a seminary student when he became aware of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. King was on a quest that he described as “a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil.” He found this in a sermon by Dr. Mordecal Johnson, president of Howard University. King stated, “Dr. Johnson had just returned from a trip to India, and, to my great interest, he spoke of the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought half dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.”

Gandhi’s work led King’s first bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, an African-American seamstress was seated in the back “colored section” of a crowded city bus. A man later came on the bus and could not find any other seats and asked the seamstress to move. This remarkable woman was Rosa Parks refusing to move and was promptly arrested. This finally was the last straw for the people in Montgomery; King determined that the time was finally right.

Martin Luther King Jr. and those who followed him knew that this ending was the beginning of a much larger struggle for true equality. It would be long and it would be difficult. Some people would grow impatient of the nonviolent actions and would want to end up fighting back, but this was the time to determine their real strength. King said,

“The false impression. . . . the resister quietly and passively accepts evil. But nothing is further from the truth. . . The method is passive physically, strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”

The “active nonviolent resistance” that won the day in Montgomery would be severely tested when it faced the racism and bigotry that created those laws in the first place. That struggle would continue into the 1960s and beyond. As the world evolved the 1960s became an act of civil disobedience also known as the activist sixties which is remembered as a time of social disturbance and change in the United States. Minority groups demanded equal rights and poor people sought a way out of their poverty. The activism fell short of saving the world, but it did produce important gains for human rights. African Americans moved closer to true social equality. The most ambitious antipoverty program in American history was created. The Supreme Court created new legal safeguards for individual rights.

In the United States, the African American civil rights movement blazed a trail of activism that others would follow. By the end of the 1950s, African-American activists had learned that changing the law was not enough. Somebody had to take the risk of putting those changes into practice. African American students had to enroll in previously all-white schools. African-American customers had to sit down at “white” lunch counters and wait to be served. Also, African-American voters had to register and then go to the polls on Election Day.

In 1960 sympathetic whites and African-Americans that were tired of the segregation formed a committee named the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to promote equality. The crusade for racial equality captured the imagination of many young people.

On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people assembled at the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered the speech that was to become one of the most memorable orations in American history. A third of the people were white sympathizers of the African-American people. He delivered the speech “I have a dream” which moved people to fight for equality for everyone, it also became known as the “Movement” because it gathered momentum after the march on Washington.

Human rights play an important role for civil disobedience. There were so many nonviolent protests because before the 20th century not everyone’s rights were being protected and being given equally. Due to Gandhi, King, and Thoreau they taught people in later generations to stand up for what is right. Now, women have the right to vote and children are treated equal and have been given rights. The right to privacy is one of the most important rights us as the people have, which due to technology is making our privacy less personal and able to be seen through closed doors. People are waiting for actions to be taken to make programs on the internet and personal information more secure.

Civil disobedience is still around today; due to Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi being the first men to provoke boycotting, not paying taxes, and any other type of nonviolent resistance. These three men showed people that “taking a stand” and protesting the government could be done without violence. Many people were thrown in jail, but none of the people that followed Thoreau’s words or Gandhi’s and King’s actions were for violence. They learned to find patience in the work they did knowing that they did not have to physically fight the government, but they must not support it.


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Updated: Nov 20, 2023
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The Legacy of Civil Disobedience: From Thoreau to Gandhi and King. (2016, Oct 17). Retrieved from

The Legacy of Civil Disobedience: From Thoreau to Gandhi and King essay
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