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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
January 17, 2022 at 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM
The Museum is open today! Here is a special message from Tom Putnam, Concord Museum’s Executive Director:
Remembering Thoreau on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
As the nation prepares to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his enduring legacy, those of us in Massachusetts can be proud of the role one of our most famous residents played in defining civil disobedience, a concept that informs non-violent revolutionaries to this day.
According to biographer, Laura Walls, for Henry David Thoreau the principle was simple. You do not lend yourself to an injustice that you condemn. Or in Thoreau’s case you do not support a government that legitimizes slavery and its expansion.
To make his point, Thoreau famously stopped paying his taxes. One day, while living at Walden Pond, he walked into town and was accosted by the town tax collector, Sam Staples who also happened to be a friend. Sam demanded that Thoreau pay his taxes or Sam would have no choice but to throw him in jail.
Thoreau reiterated that he would not be paying and so Sam followed through on his threat and sent his friend to jail
After an unknown friend or family member paid his fine, Thoreau was released the next morning. But as he walked through town he felt misunderstood by his neighbors who didn’t understand why he had taken this stance.
So he wrote a lecture to explain his rationale but not to trumpet his own moral purity. Instead, he hoped through his words to enlarge the circle of his neighbors’ understanding of their own actions.
Sam Staples, for example, did have a choice. He did not have to put Thoreau in jail. Sam could have taken his own moral stance joining in Thoreau’s protest and allowing him to remain free.
That, of course, would have put Sam on the spot. But it also would have put someone else on the spot.
And in the end, Walls suggests that in his famous lecture Thoreau was essentially calling for, what she describes as, a “cascade of virtue.”
The power of the essay, she suggests, is in making each of us consider how we live in concert with others and, most crucially, to confront whether our actions bring justice to others or harden the many injustices in our world.
This Martin Luther King Day, we invite the public to come to the Concord Museum to see the lock and key of Thoreau’s jail cell, the desk on which he wrote Civil Disobedience, and a figurine given to Thoreau from a formerly enslaved person who Thoreau helped to escape to Canada.
The Museum will also be partnering with three local organizations — Harlem Lacrosse, Gaining Ground, and the Robbins House – which seek to confront injustice and build a better world including
These are just three examples of institutions that continue the work that Thoreau called on his contemporaries to do.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau – all of us can still be part of the endless “cascade of virtue” that Thoreau began. And we can remain forever proud that its font started right here in our state.
Edward W. Kane Executive Director
Image: (Detail) Desk, about 1838, painted pine; Concord Museum, Gift of Cummings E. Davis, (1886) Th10.