Though a simplified view of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” many read the document primarily as a defense of the concept of civil disobedience. This approach is certainly understandable, considering that Dr. King does expand on his notion of the concept in the “Letter.”
The basic premise of civil disobedience is that an individual has the responsibility to defy the laws of the state when the human law contradicts certain superior ideals. Thinkers like Socrates (c. 470-299 B.C.E.), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and John Locke (1632-1704) all explored the relationship between the individual and the state. What emerged by the time of Locke and the Enlightenment was the idea that the universe did have “natural laws” that might often come in conflict with man-made laws.
This sense of “natural laws” was central to the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson insisted that man had a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The suggestion here – which has led to many controversies in American history – is that any federal laws (which would later be enumerated in the Constitution) are answerable to a higher authority, which various thinkers would describe as based in morality, theology, or personal conscience.
However, the theory of civil disobedience was first explicitly invoked by American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). In a famous lecture, later edited into the essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau insisted that the government’s authority is dependent on its people’s consent. Secondly, he insisted that justice was superior to government authority. Therefore, an individual has a right to assess whether a law conforms to the ideal of justice, and to repudiate that law if he deems it unjust. One essential distinction which Thoreau makes, however, is that the law-breaker must break this law nonviolently, and that he must accept the penalty of his transgression. In other words, he must be willing to serve jail time, rather than lead a rebellion. This is the essence of the “civil” part of the equation. Notably, Thoreau did serve jail time for his refusal to follow laws pertaining to the Mexican War and slavery.
Another noted proponent of civil disobedience, and a great influence on Dr. King, was the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Similarly to Thoreau, but on a much larger scale, Gandhi put these ideals of civil disobedience into practice as he resisted the British control of his nation. He first developed his philosophy of civil disobedience while involved in a movement for Indian immigrants in South Africa, but used it much more explicitly when leading the Indian nationalist movement beginning in 1915.
Like Thoreau, Gandhi believed that civil disobedience required nonviolence, but insisted that the movement was not “passive.” Instead, he developed and spread the theory of “satyagrapha,” which posited several important ideas of civil disobedience: truth was greater than manmade law; followers must respect the idea of law even if they break a law; the disobedience must be nonviolent; followers must ensure their moral motives for undertaking the practice; followers must accept the punishment for their transgression; and followers must be committed to social work. Because his theory was developed through so much direct action, Gandhi’s theory is far more practical and nuanced than Thoreau’s. It seeks to not only change laws, but to remake society for the better.
Though Dr. King read Thoreau before he learned about and met Gandhi, both of these men’s theories were instrumental in helping him develop his own sense of civil disobedience. In many ways, his synthesis of theory and practice, of Thoreau and Gandhi, has made “Letter from Birmingham Jail” an equally if not superior model for civil disobedience even into the present day.