Breathe My Own Way
In July of 1846, fed up with the United States’ involvement in the Mexican War and the persistence of slavery, a 29 year-old teacher, writer and pencil salesman living in Concord, Massachusetts refused to pay his delinquent taxes. Equally fed up with the young man’s excuses, the town tax collector arrested him and put him behind bars in the local stone-walled jail.
Although the prisoner’s stay amounted to only one night – which was due to the fact that his kindly aunt showed up the following day and paid his taxes for him – the overnight stay in jail nevertheless inspired the idealistic writer to pen what has become one of the most celebrated essays in American literature.
That essay, of course, was entitled Civil Disobedience, a resistance piece that has influenced a number of human and civil rights activists over the years, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The author was Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, whom perhaps many of us first encountered in a high school or college English class.
In his essay, Thoreau acknowledged that while the government was capable of physically overpowering and confining him, the one thing it couldn’t coerce from him was his peace of mind and his own conscience. He wrote:
I could not help being struck with the foolishness
of that institution which treated me as if I were
mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up . . .
I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls
seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.
I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after
my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. 1
With the celebration of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approaching this Sunday and Monday, I’m reminded that the invitation to stand up and speak out for justice is something that exists for any of us all of the time.
Attending the first gathering of this year’s Moral Mondays Georgia movement, which was held this week, I’m aware that I was presented with a similar invitation. Our group of about 300 or so persons made a peaceful demonstration at the state capitol just outside the chambers where our governor was being sworn in for his second term. Moral Monday seeks to bring visibility to the needs of the most vulnerable persons in our state – the poor, the homeless, those without access to quality healthcare and education, undocumented immigrants, and others.
Moral Monday will be back on January 26 . . . and again and again after that until the 2015 legislative session ends. We will use acts of non-violence and resistance to make our points. Some of us expect to be arrested.
Why do any of this? Just as Henry David Thoreau believed – and King demonstrated – I believe we have to be prepared to stand up to laws and systems that are unjust. We must breathe our own way – freely, with our passions at the fore, and with respect for the basic rights of all people.
Getting involved in a movement like Moral Monday is new territory for me. It definitely conflicts with the Good Girl role I’ve attempted to follow most of my life. I will be part of group where some of its members hold points of view that are clearly more progressive than mine.
And, yet, I think it’s time that I take a few more risks. It’s time for me to breathe more fully without the concern of disapproval or of making mistakes. This is the invitation that has presented itself to me to do what I think is the right thing. And I am saying yes.
Rev. Terry Davis
 Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”, as featured in Anthology of American Literature: Colonial Through Romantic, George McMichael, general ed. (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, NY: 1974), p. 1423.