From the infamous high school sit-in from the class of ‘01 or Gandhi’s well known salt march, Henry David Thoreau paved the way of passive protest with his display against the government when he wouldn’t pay taxes. Thoreau wouldn’t pay his taxes because he knew that his and everyone else’s tax payments would go to support the Mexican-American War. Henry didn’t know he would inspire some of the greatest civil activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
In Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” he writes why he was against the war.
“Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.” (Thoreau 385)
He believed that the war was being used to spread slavery into the Mexican territories that bordered the U.S. such as New Mexico and California. Refusing to pay the poll tax for six years, Thoreau was put in jail refusing to pay the poll tax (Thoreau 402). The jail in Concord, Massachusetts was to only release Thoreau after the fine was paid; Thoreau also refused to pay such a fine. His relatives settled the “debt”, without Thoreau’s knowledge or consent, displeased and unhappy, he was released after only one night.
Although his sentence was only for one night, Thoreau’s "Civil Disobedience" would inspire Dr. Martin Luther King. Using the Thoreau’s teaching of passive resistance to protest, King used it to spotlight the injustices against the African American race in the U.S. Through with being forced be segregated by going to different schools and using different bathrooms and publically being viewed as inferior, Dr. King used non-violent forms of protest such as sit-in and peaceful marches. Just like Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax, these non-violent protests also eventually ended with King's arrest for his role of leadership in the passive march in Birmingham Alabama. (“Henry David Thoreau”)
During his sentence in the Birmingham Jail, King used his time to write "The Letter from Birmingham Jail". This letter was a response to eight white Alabama clergymen. The clergymen agreed that segregation against colored races existed but believed that the battle against racial differences should be dealt only within the courts. King responded In the letter that without nonviolent and passive protest like the marches and sit-ins he organized, true civil rights could never be achieved. (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”)Thoreau used “Civil Disobedience” to publically display how distraught he was with the government, and the power they had to force him to pay a poll tax that supported a war and slavery. In his autobiography, Dr. Martin Luther King retold his first encounter with non-violent protest was when he read “Civil Disobedience” while attending Morehouse College.
“Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.” (“Henry David Thoreau”) Thoreau’s influence did not only stay in America, Mahatma Gandhi read Thoreau’s work while in South Africa. Mahatma Gandhi read Walden in 1906 while working on his own non-violent protest in Johannesburg, South Africa. During an international interview he told American reporter Webb Miller, "[Thoreau's] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,' written about 80 years ago”. (“Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi”) Gandhi traveled to South Africa to partner up with fellow Indians to lead a protest against a bill that would deny them the right to vote. Mahatma was unable to stop the bill's passage but his campaign brought international attention to problems Indians living in South Africa faced. He led the way and founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, which help mold the Indian community of South Africa. He may have been unhappy with action of his relatives to pay off his fine, but Thoreau’s one night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax which he believed whould help spread slavery into the Mexican territories. Thoreau’s ideas and statements still continue to influence people today and will continue to in the future.
"Henry David Thoreau." Wikipedia. 2008. 24 Oct 2008
"Letters from Birmingham Jail." Wikipedia. 2008. 24 Oct 2008 .
"Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi." Wikipedia. 2008. 24 Oct 2008
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil disobedience. New York, New York, USA: Penguin Group, 1986.