Civil Disobedience in American Historical Life and Literature
There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love," writes Martin Luther King Junior in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" from his civil rights era protest text, Why We Can't Wait, originally published in 1963 after the successful Birmingham bus boycott. King wrote his letter to his fellow Christian ministers in the spirit and words of a man deeply disappointed in an America that had repeatedly denied African-Americans the right to be full citizens in supposedly a free and just society. King's disappointment and subsequent acts of civil disobedience had its roots in the ultimate paradox that is at the nature of American political life. America is a society founded upon the rule of law as well as custom. The American Constitution enshrines this nation's belief in justice and the rule of the word as the foundation of American democracy. Yet, America was founded as an act of civil and rebellious disobedience against another government.
King's statement that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," thus ultimately acts a call to arms for the American government and American citizens that both confirms the words of the Emancipation Proclamation in law, yet also asks for Americans to ignore unjust laws that encourage racial discrimination. The white ministers he is addressing in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" have accused him of extremism. "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be." But, answer to the call to wait, King explains in Why We Can't Wait, that African-American people have been waiting since the antebellum period to fully participate in the system of American justice. King calls upon federal government authorities to intervene in state's supposedly internal affairs, to protect the rights of individual American citizens. (1963).
King states in many of his writings that his decision to embark upon a campaign of civil disobedience was spawned by earlier efforts by the Transcendentalist philosopher author, and activist Henry David Thoreau. However, in contrast, Thoreau's earlier work, on "Civil Disobedience," although often rendered analogous with King's works on the subject, stresses "that government is best which governs least." Thoreau stressed a simpler philosophy of governmental activism, asking, unlike King, for the government to retreat rather than to become more activist in its involvement in individual and internal political affairs.
That government is best which governs not at all," continued Thoreau. Rather than seeing government as having the power to enact justice, Thoreau believed that "Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient." (Civil Disobedience, Part I) Thus, Thoreau placed little value, ultimately, in the ability of the government to enact justice, and pressured the government through his act of civil disobedience to withdraw rather than to enter into action. "The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it." (Civil Disobedience, Part I)
In other words, the institutional authority of the American government, respecting the fact that it began to support fully-fledged individual freedoms and resistance to unfair taxation, should back off at all times in the intervention in its citizen's affairs, rather than imposing requirements upon citizens to pay for that army and to serve in the army. King argues that when the government is deaf to legitimate pleas expressed through legal channels, other and more extreme action must be taken that is not physically injurious to others but still accomplishes righteous actions. Thoreau argues that when a government is illegitimate in its scope and stretch of reach, such as, to his mind, in demanding taxes to pay for an unjust war in Mexico, it has no right to make such demands of its citizens, even if it was elected by a majority of the population.
The different rationales of King and Thoreau may be more easily delineated and distinguished by reflecting upon the fact that the latter was calling upon, through acts of civil disobedience, the American government to take concrete protective action, while Thoreau was essentially asking the government of America not to do something, that is, not to go to war. King called upon justice in his defense, and America's legal protections of rights that were being violated in Birmingham. Thoreau called upon the American government to respect its principles of noninvolvement that existed even before the Constitution was enacted and had any legal authority.
It is important, in Thoreau's defense, and even to add nuance to King's arguments for a call to government action by violating select laws in a nonviolent manner, that these two men's ruminations upon the nature of civil disobedience should not confined to current American legal structures. Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" is set well before the American war of Independence, in Puritan Salem, Massachusetts. Yet John Proctor still stands accused in the eyes of his community when Reverend Hale visits him and remarks that Proctor has been absent from church. This is long before Proctor ever takes the stand to defend his life against the capital charges of witchcraft. Early on, Proctor is accused of violating the community custom of attending Sunday church. Proctor does so quietly, rather than taking a publicly defiant stand, and his act is not technically illegal, but it is such a flagrant breach of custom the community is outraged by it, by his absence.
Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr.'s decision to allow himself to be imprisoned, however, might be seen as a similarly radical act within the conservative climate and community of the Christian ministry, to whom he must defend his decisions to consciously and publicly violate the law. Only towards the end of the play does Proctor take an equally radical stance of public civil disobedience, refusing to make a bogus confession of witchcraft to extricate himself from the death penalty but also to excuse the lying community of its complicity in allowing the mendacious, deranged girls to take control of its structures. By forcing the community to kill him, Proctor, the play suggests, ultimately makes a more effective condemnation of the community's insanity had he lied, and allowed things to be seamlessly and mendaciously smoothed over.
Although one might like to think that the world cannot go mad today, the way that it went mad in Salem, the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang provides ample evidence that custom as well as bad laws blind us to the insanities that exist within our frameworks of custom as well as law. The protagonists of Abbey's novel suggest that radical acts of civil disobedience are also necessary to transcend the environmental madness that has been imposed upon the world, much as unjust laws were imposed upon the African-American community in Birmingham and upon Thoreau as a taxpayer. In the novel, the Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III is outraged to return from the service to find that the land he loved is being colonized by industrial development. Along with a feminist named Bonnie Abbzug the two of them see the rape of the land as justification to destroy the machines that builders use, in a kind of proto-environmentalist terrorism. No one is meant to die, as in a war, as the result of such actions of protest, but clearly their actions are physically threatening to their adversaries in the ways that King and Thoreau's imprisonment (which only hurts the self) and "The Crucible's" actions are…