Both Martin Luther King, Junior and Henry David Thoreau lived lives based on the notion of civil disobedience in the name of a better version of justice. Both men went beyond the mere realm of words as they lived their written messages through their actions. This essay will discuss how Dr. King and Henry David Thoreau’s philosophies intersect. I will begin with a discussion of Dr. King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and then move to Thoreau’s essay. Although living in different times and contexts, these two shining examples demonstrate a shared call for ‘success unexpected in common hours. ’
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forms a rational and well grounded argument for direct action, non-violent civil rights campaigning in the specific context of the open letter “A Call for Unity. ” Through both form and function, Dr. King fleshed out the reasons for his approach with the hope that by shedding light on his tactics, the clergymen and their followers would no longer remain silent companions of segregation. Dr. King’s open response letter speaks directly to his critics in a language that is calm and exacting in his attack on unreasonable racial fears.
He spares no detail and tackles each criticism with the hopes of (re)negotiating the terms on which direct action non-violent campaigns are publicly perceived. Dr. King initially responds to the charge that they were ‘outsiders coming in’ to Birmingham and did not have a personal reason to demonstrate there. He responds to this criticism through a discussion and import of the inter-relatedness of the racial situation in America, or what he more eloquently states, “The inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. ”
By stressing the fact that the racial climate affects everyone, both directly and indirectly, Dr. King is rallying his argument around the basis of ‘unexpected success in the common hours’ by echoing calls for brotherhood and unity which directly responds to the title of the clergymen’s letter, “A Call for Unity. ” In this way, he indicted the silent majority for being accomplices to the factors that led up to the demonstration, while the clergymen were unsuccessfully trying to typecast the demonstrators and the demonstration as being an extremist approach that would lead to violence.
Dr. King answered this call by stating the four steps to non-violent campaigning, an approach that aimed to highlight tension with the ultimate goal of creating dialogue rather than monologue. Dr. King offers another striking defense of his philosophy when he moves on to the discussion of timing and wisdom. The clergymen were upset that the demonstration was taking place so quickly after the city of Birmingham elected Mayor Boutwell.
They argued that the demonstrations did not offer enough time for the new mayor to initiate civil rights policies. However, Dr. King noted that the Civil Rights movement, not only in Birmingham, but across the country, had already waited over 340 years to gain their natural rights promised to them by the Constitution. He cites the fact that prior negotiations had only led to further disappointment and broken promises on the part of the white city government who had agreed to take down segregationist signs throughout the city. He places this argument in the context of negative versus positive peace, where negative peace is the absence of tension and positive peace is the presence of justice.
Dr. King was fighting for positive peace in the name of love and God, a language the clergymen were familiar with but had not applied to their everyday teachings. Ultimately, Dr. King deconstructed the clergymen’s letter down to an ideological and fear-based argument that aimed to maintain the status quo. Perhaps his critique of the white majority and the silence of the Christian church was his most heartfelt and scathing critique and that caused him the greatest disappointment. Despite his disagreement with the clergymen, Dr.
King offered an immanent defense of his philosophy that effectively opened the way for ‘success unexpected in common hours. ’ In a similar call for a better form of justice, Henry David Thoreau called out his government in his famous Walden manifesto. He too echoes the theme of historical tradition impeding the rights of the modern condition. He felt such a need to change the possibilities of life that he renounced the modern life and moved to the woods in Walden in an effort to see if he could live a better and more fulfilled life through the simple act of self-sufficiency.
His act is a reaction against the march of history and its inherent fear of change, he asks, “How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity? ” In this way, Thoreau is creating a new possibility for other paths for humanity to begin, paths that will lead to a ‘higher order of beings’ that are more liberal and justice seeking instead of the silent acceptance and unquestioned motive of the status quo to maintain power and order.
It takes audacity to challenge the set stones of tradition in the face of constant obstacles and derision. Thoreau’s audacity comes in the form of optimism for a better future, not simply that there will be a future. He writes, “If one advanced confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. ” He is opening the door to questions of possibility while at the same time calling into question the fear of change that the status quo so desperately clings to.
The fear of change is also a fear of humanity. In order to maintain control, the powers that be must operate through consent, but it takes people to accept the way things are if it will persist. Thoreau is actively countering the conventional wisdom that things are the way they are due to a higher power or divine intervention. Humans form the foundation of reality and he believes that humans have agency to reject and change this dominant order. There is more than one way to live a life and there are better lives to live beyond the realm of the established order.
He writes, “In view of the future or possible, we should live quite laxly and undefined in front, our outlines dim and misty on that side; as our shadows reveal an insensible perception toward the sun. The volatile truth of our words should betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. ” Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau are calling the established order into question in an attempt to challenge tradition with the hopes of creating a better future.
They are responding to the fears of change and optimism long held by the powers that have effectively isolated humanity from itself through mechanisms of control and order. Human beings are not meant to be caged animals; they are to be free to choose to live the life of their dreams. In this vision, the ‘success unexpected in common hours’ will become the reality of the future, a future we can all claim as our own.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 1963. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1845.