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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Nonviolent Philosophy and Self Defense
The success of the movement for African American civil rights across the South in the 1960s has largely been credited to activists who adopted the strategy of nonviolent protest. Leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and John Lewis believed wholeheartedly in this philosophy as a way of life, and studied how it had been used successfully by Mahatma Gandhi to protest inequality in India. They tried to literally “love your enemies” and practiced pacifism in all circumstances. But other activists were reluctant to devote their lives to nonviolence, and instead saw it as simply a tactic that could be used at marches and sit-ins to gain sympathy for their cause and hopefully change the attitudes of those who physically attacked them. Many interviewees in the Civil Rights History Project discuss their own personal views of nonviolence and how they grappled with it in the face of the daily threats to their lives.
When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at a conference for college students in 1960, members debated whether the group should adopt nonviolence as a way of life or as a tactical strategy for its mission. Courtland Cox remembers the debates at this meeting: “One of the things that the nonviolent people’s philosophy – those people, they felt that, you know, you could appeal to men’s hearts. You know, my view, and which I’ve said to them, was that you might as well appeal to their livers, because they’re both organs of the body. There was nothing to that. You did not – you engaged in nonviolence because the other side had overwhelming force. There was not a sense that the other side would do the right thing if you told them, because at the end of the day, the other side knew what it was doing to you better than you did.” Chuck McDew was also at this meeting and recalls, “My position was when Gandhi tried nonviolence in South Africa he was beaten, jailed, and run out of the country. As I said, in the United States nonviolence won’t work. Because when Gandhi used, in India, the tactic of having people lay down on railroad tracks to protest, I said, ‘and it worked.’ I said, ‘But if a group of black people lay down on railroad tracks here, in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, any of these Southern states, a train would run you over and back up to make certain you’re dead. You cannot make a moral appeal in the midst of an amoral society.’ And I said that it was not immoral. We lived in a society that was amoral, and as such, nonviolence was not going to work. And so, I said I couldn’t and the people with me could not join Dr. King. And, uh, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.’”
Even though activists used nonviolence at protests to gain sympathy for their cause, arming themselves with guns for self-protection was not uncommon. Mildred Bond Roxborough was a longtime secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and traveled throughout the South regularly to help with organizing. She tells a story about driving through Mississippi with Medgar Evers during a particularly violent time: “We had had two branch presidents who had been killed just before this particular time. It was difficult to believe that these people would continue to carry on like this because the situation was so oppressive in Mississippi. We were driving one night and I had taken off my shoes and felt something on the floor which was cold. I said to Medgar, "What is this? Maybe I can move it." He said, ‘Well, that's my shotgun you have your feet on.’ Of course my feet flew up. But this is just to give you an idea of the sense of the environment.”
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was a group founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in 1964 to organize men to guard the homes of activists and to protect them while they traveled. A second branch was started in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the following year. The Hicks family was protected by the Deacons, and Barbara Collins, the daughter of activist Robert Hicks, reflects on her father’s position on armed self-defense in an interview with the family: “And my dad always said, ‘What kind of man –?’ You know, Martin Luther King was a good man. He had a dream. But my Daddy fought for the dream. And it was his right to fight for the dream. You have a Constitutional right, and that’s what Daddy said, ‘I have a right to bear arms. And if I need to protect my family,’ especially when the police did not protect us, then he had a right to do that. The Deacons had a right to carry the guns.”
These interviews and many others from the Civil Rights History Project complicate our understanding of nonviolence in the movements for social justice. For more about nonviolence and armed self-defense, watch a book talk webcast from our Civil Rights History Project public programs series featuring Charlie Cobb, a former SNCC activist, on “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.” External