Lesson 9: Civil Disobedience

Getting Started

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by a 19th-century American philosopher named Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was born almost 100 years before King was. Thoreau lived during the time of slavery, and he was disgusted by it. He was also vehemently anti-war and was morally opposed to American expansion into the West and South. For these reasons, and because he was broadly opposed to violence of any kind, he passionately objected to the Mexican-American War, which began when he was 29 years old.

Thoreau is credited with coining the term "civil disobedience;" it is the title of one of his two most famous works. In the essay "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau calls on all Americans to engage in a nonviolent revolution with the aim of overthrowing the government. He implores all public employees to quit their jobs and all citizens to stop voting and paying taxes. When someone, in an open and public way, refuses to comply with a law that they believe is unjust, that person is participating in the form of political protest called civil disobedience.

Though King did not advocate all of Thoreau's tactics, he was moved and inspired by the notion of passionate resistance without the use of violence. For this reason, King used the term "civil disobedience" to describe the nonviolent resistance of the 1960s movement in Birmingham.

Stuff You Need

  • highlighter* (Activity 1 - optional)

* - denotes an optional material that may or may not be needed

Ideas to Think About

  • Who gets to decide what is "law" in this country?
  • When injustice is supported or enforced by laws, should you abide by those laws?

Things to Know

  • Henry David Thoreau was an author and social commentator who lived during the time of slavery and American westward expansion, both of which he hated.
  • Henry David Thoreau wrote a political essay called "Civil Disobedience" describing the potential for a nonviolent overthrow of the American government.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not agree with all of Henry David Thoreau's views, but King was inspired by Thoreau's commitment to seek societal change through nonviolent protest.
  • When people, in an open and public way, refuse to comply with a law that they believe is unjust, they are participating in a form of political protest called civil disobedience.


  • Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. (LA)
  • Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience's knowledge of the topic. (LA)
  • Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing. (LA)
  • Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose. (LA)
  • Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington's Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"), including how they address related themes and concepts.

Introducing the Lesson

In this lesson, students will learn about the contribution to the tradition of nonviolent resistance made by one of the earliest American philosophers, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau lived during the time of slavery and American westward expansion, both of which he strongly opposed. He believed in opposing the government, but did not favor violence as a means to an end.

Thoreau described nonviolent tactics for resisting the government in an essay called "Civil Disobedience." "Civil Disobedience" remains one of the most widely read pieces of social philosophy in the modern era. Martin Luther King, Jr. read it, and in this lesson, students will analyze the similarities and differences between the views of the two men.