Forefathers of Civil Rights


Through peaceful protest and applied education, three giants of the long civil rights movement aided in reversing the doctrine against African Americans.

The privilege of citizens in a democracy has always been a voice in the actions and reforms of their government. Revolutionaries, who are often considered criminals and shunned for their non-conformity, stand in history as great figures. These great reformers achieved change, directly or not, by attacking the very institutions that forced the inequality in which they lived.

Thoreau, King, and Douglass all contributed greatly to the advancement of human rights, and their fight for parity continues into the twenty-first century only because of the sacrifices that they made and the precedent and ideas that they set forth.

Thoreau: declining to indirectly support slavery through taxes

The first of these men to begin his protest was Henry David Thoreau, whose refusal to pay a poll tax led to his jailing, and set a precedent for non-support of a cause when found to be reprehensible. Thoreau’s objections to slavery would make him a legend even a century later, and his mindset helped to rehash the model of the questioning citizen, a principle on which the nation was founded.

Thoreau took an interesting approach to the injustices of his day, holding that man’s duty was not to eradicate wrongs, but as he wrote in Civil Disobedience in 1848, “it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” In effect, he impishly founds the very principle that he insists he is trying to avoid; by eliminating support for a system, and completely ignoring it, the culture ultimately and slyly eliminates the offending system. This passive resistance is lesser in demeanor than King’s aggressive desegregation tactics a hundred years later, but it was hardly with a modest beginning that Thoreau inadvertently spawned the civil rights movement.

Frederick Douglass: education as a shield against ignorance

During Thoreau’s days at Harvard, a young slave was preparing for a life spent questioning the inherent injustices of slavery. Frederick Douglass was not the first slave to escape the horrors of white ownership, nor was he the first to write about the experiences that he suffered while on plantations and in the north. But what contributed to Douglass’ wide appeal was his mastery of the English language and cool, rational demeanor. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he wrote “Some…unfortunately allow themselves to look at public questions more through the medium of feeling than of reason, and follow the line of what is grateful to their friends rather than what is consistent with their convictions.” It was with this unbiased rationalization that he was perceived as a worthy speaker and commanded respect even beyond his death and into the next century.

Douglass was interestingly also one of the first freed slaves to address the issue of the dehumanization that occurs between both the class of slaves and their masters. Through his rhetoric, he argues in staunch British literary style for the abolition of these beliefs that he feared would survive long after the great emancipation. He maintains that slave holding warps society into a series of roles that serve only to demean all classes, resulting in horribly unethical practices, to which the ruling body becomes impervious.

King: spiritual might against a mighty inequity

Later, a minister would step out from behind the pulpit and become one of the greatest civil rights figures of all time. Martin Luther King, Jr. led numerous demonstrations in the South and gained national attention for various civil rights actions. He modeled his non-violent resistance after Gandhi and focused his struggle on educating the public. Many liken King to Thoreau, as their stories share many similarities, and both endured imprisonment and cultural stigmas for their views and beliefs. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he directed at other pastors who he felt were obligated to support to his cause, survived to become a major work as the blueprint for his actions. It is modeled after the letters of the Bible, and contains similarities to Douglass’ logical and calm style, despite the obvious passion with which he writes.

In the letter, King implores his peers to see the errors of segregation, and begs the return of the country to its intended roots as a nation under God. He alludes the protestors to the Hebrews of the Old Testament, writing that by protesting at various marches and sit-ins they were standing up for the American dream, “Thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” During his era, King achieved perhaps the greatest level of direct change among his contemporaries.

Looking back and understanding motives

With what motivation did these great men attack the systems of their day, and for what gain? Did they intend to become martyrs in later times or did they simply hold so truly to their beliefs that they were willing to suffer almost unbearably for them? Thoreau was shunned by society for his refusal to cooperate with the government that he called unjust, looked upon by many friends and family as an embarrassment. Douglass rose to such a level of status through his academic credentials that his own people felt that they had lost touch with him, while influential and educated whites of his time may never have considered him their equal. King was condemned by Southern government and police as an evil crusader for his efforts, and eventually killed for his beliefs.

All endured extreme hardships for a cause that, if left untouched today, would have left America in deplorable conditions that would be in contrary to the very ideas upon which this nation was founded.

All three men led the fight against inequality and unjust government through differing methods, but shared a common desire for human coexistence and peace among classes. Even after their deaths their vision has lived on in numerous media to teach future generations and allow for the eventual harmonization of people.