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The Power of Peace: Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a frenzy of support for the Mexican-American War swept across the United States. But a small minority were unhappy. They saw the war as an act of violent aggression against a weak, neighboring country. Who were the people in this minority? Mostly ministers, scholars, abolitionists, and a few people in the government, such as Abraham Lincoln. He was not the president yet, but a freshman congressman from Illinois. He called the war immoral, a serious threat to our new nation's values of freedom and liberty.

A man named Henry David Thoreau (pronounced THOR-oh) also thought the war was wrong. He refused to pay taxes to the American government because of it. However, it was illegal to refuse to pay taxes which are owed to the government. Thoreau was arrested and thrown in jail.

Thoreau sat in a jail cell, rather than pay the taxes and a fine to get out. He did this to make a public statement: "I refuse to support the war." Thoreau's friend, the Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to visit him in jail. Emerson asked why Thoreau was allowing himself to waste away in jail when he had the money to pay the taxes. Thoreau responded with a challenge to his friend. He said, "The question is not what am I doing in here, but what are you doing out there?"

To Thoreau's frustration, his tax was paid by a relative who also could not tolerate his imprisonment, and he was promptly released from captivity. However, the experience led him to write his ground-breaking essay, "Civil Disobedience," which eloquently explained why it is necessary to disobey a law when the law is unjust.

Sixty years later, on the other side of the world, in South Africa, a British-educated lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi (pronounced mo-HAHN-dus GON-dee) got a job. Although allowed to work as a lawyer, Gandhi discovered that he lacked full rights in South Africa, whose laws treated all Indians as second-class people and black Africans, the majority of the population, much worse. Gandhi, like Thoreau, was arrested for nonviolent protest against unjust laws. Gandhi read Thoreau's essay, "Civil Disobedience". It inspired him to not give up, even when the challenges seemed much too high to overcome.

Gandhi dedicated his entire life to the principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience for social change. In India, his peaceful leadership encouraged the Indian people to protest and persist until their country won its independence from British rule.

Near the time of Gandhi's death in 1948, back in the United States, a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. began his own nonviolent fight. America's government was supposed to protect our citizens' rights and opportunities, but in many places, in many ways, governments specifically denied rights and opportunities to African Americans. Laws needed to change.

Many people were angry. Some wanted to seek change through violence. Dr. King spoke passionately about making change by peaceful means. He joined nonviolent marches and demonstrations to show others how. People listened and watched. The more people followed Dr. King's words and his example, the more powerful grew the peaceful demand. Just like Gandhi, Dr. King led peaceful, persistent protest for change.

Where did Martin Luther King, Jr. find inspiration? A Christian, he had learned the Bible's guidance to love his enemies. But he learned about civil disobedience from the writings of the Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. And, he believed he could achieve change peacefully, because of the ideas and example of Gandhi.

Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Three prophetic leaders, in different times, in different places, who found the power of peace. May their words and deeds, in turn, inspire us.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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