Malcolm X and Thoreau


A century apart, Malcolm X and Henry David Thoreau had very different ideas of how to protest laws they considered unjust.  Malcolm X was mainly concerned with laws that were unjust to African Americans, like Jim Crow Laws in the South, and the gerrymandering in the North.  Thoreau was interested in the taxes that supported the slave system, like those that paid for the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Mexican-American War.

Malcolm X advocated the use of the “Ballot or the Bullet”, asserting that African Americans have the law

on their side when it comes to the rights they wish to exercise, such as voting, and anyone who stands in the way of them exercising their rights “is the law no longer.”  He supported the use of the Ballot in promoting effective African American representation, rather than the representation of the Congressmen who would show up in predominately black districts before elections promising change, and then never actually deliver it.

Thoreau had a very different concept of how one should fight against unjust laws.  In “Resistance to Civil Government”, Thoreau offers two different responses to unjust laws.  One can either break the law or withdraw for government.  Thoreau himself advocated the use of civil disobedience, or breaking the laws that supported unconscionable things, like slavery or war.  Thoreau also encouraged withdrawal from a government that made unjust laws when he urges his readers to “let it go”, meaning to cease participating in a government that is unjust.

So, Malcolm X and Thoreau have very different approaches to fighting against an unjust system.  Are either of them right, or even still applicable today?  Malcolm X’s encouragement of the bullet as a legitimate means of political resistance is no longer a viable means of protest.  People in today’s society who are denied rights, such as gay people and illegal immigrants, are not using the bullet, even though the ballot is not effective for them, or unavailable.  Nowadays, the bullet is too extreme a means of protest for it to be supported, and thus effective.  In the same way, Thoreau’s advocating withdrawal as a way to protest unjust laws is no longer feasible in modern America.  It is impossible to not participate in the government today; it is just too omnipresent.

Civil Disobedience and the Ballot are still successful ways of protesting unjust laws.  The Occupy movement has been employing civil disobedience effectively, as when protestors in Los Angeles refused to leave their camp, despite a police order.

The ballot will always be an effective means of changing unjust laws.  If an issue becomes so pervasive, and the government refuses to act, the people will vote for representatives who agree with their beliefs, so that the laws can change.

In general, I believe that forms of protests that are aggressive or passive cannot succeed.  Aggressive forms of protest, like the bullet, do not create enough sympathy, while passive forms of protest, like withdrawal, do not create enough awareness.  Rather, approaches that strike the right balance between forcefulness and passivity are the most effective.

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1 Response to Malcolm X and Thoreau

  1. miswain says:

    I agree that Malcom X’s violence and Thoreau’s withdrawal are out of the picture, because times have changed. Furthermore, I would add that the evolution of information technology may play a significant role in this. Today, for example, a passerby can take a picture of something he or she feels to be newsworthy, and tweet it to a local news source. The smallest things can give negative stigmas to popular movements. Case in point: An Occupy protester defecating on a police car. Tea Party supporters stomping on the head of a supporter of a Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky last year. With images like this so readily available, it’s no wonder that the public tends to distance themselves from these kinds of people. In the days of Malcom X or Henry David Thoreau, this probably would not have been the case.

    Moreover, like you pointed out, there is too much going on in the world for a faction to gain anything politically by simply being silent.

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