. Drawing on Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., defend or attack the practice of “Civil Disobedience” in a democratic society such as ours.
Civil disobedience is not only a crucial tool that the masses use to express their grievances against an unjust government, but it is a necessity for the social health of any society. Citizens can only respect a country worthy of respect, with or without rule of law dictating behavior. The rule of law may retain order, but may also be seen as unjust or unnecessary by those are forced to submit to it.
Since Thoreau’s treatise on civil disobedience, nonviolent protest has been used by many movements such as the civil rights movement to affect change, and must continued to be employed as a tool to ensure that people retain the power over the government.
Civil disobedience has been a successful tool in initiating change in many countries, including the United States. Civil disobedience is generally comprised of a majority group that represents the voice of those who are adversely affected by injustice and is mostly nonviolent, usually in the form of protesting.
Henry David Thoreau discusses the subject of civil disobedience when talking of his own efforts to make a nonviolent protest: “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (Thoreau).
When a government or ruler fails to treat all citizens equally, citizens must mobilize to voice grievances when they decide that the governmental system is not ideal. Analysis of the history of civil disobedience reveals that leaders of such movements have always advocated against violence, preferring peaceful measures as a main weapon. Peaceful weapons have been proven more effective in changing the systems and achieving national and individual freedom. Civil disobedience utilizes a system of protests, from boycotts to strikes, that always seek to remain true to non-violent ideals. The ultimate goal of civil disobedience is to initiate systemic change.
Civil disobedience is driven by a motive of correcting the wrongs and demand for equality and justice. Unlike other movements, the motive of civil disobedience is not to dictate or oppress others. It is a system of protest, driven more by intelligence than force. The question of attacking or killing has no place in civil disobedience, which aims at willingly and peacefully breaking the law. As a civil disobedience movement gathers momentum, the government it is opposed to is bound to be crippled and ruptured, and ultimately changed by the movement. During the twentieth century, this was used successfully in India to liberate the country from colonial rule.
Indian spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi believed in Satyagraha, the philosophy of non-violent resistance. He used it to drive the most powerful empire in the world out of his country, achieving independence and proving to the rest of the colonial world that peaceful resistance could initiate change. Gandhi passionately advocated nonviolence and peaceful protesting, and provided guidelines on civil disobedience. Some of Gandhi’s guidelines included that resisters would harbor no anger, or suffer the anger of the opponent, putting up with assaults, though never retaliating.
Civil resisters would not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger, and they would also accept arrest, the loss of property, and adherence to all other laws as dictated by authorities. However, if a civil resister has any property in is possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will however, never retaliate, insult his opponent, nor submit to the pomp and circumstance accompanying allegiance to the government being opposed.
And, as part of Gandhi’s guidelines, a civil resister will even protect opposing authorities from any violence that might be perpetrated upon them (Gandhi). With Gandhi’s guidelines for civil disobedience, one can clearly see that rule of law is a careful consideration to those wishing to peacefully affect change. Only decades after Gandhi’s successful campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience against the British, in the United States, Martin Luther King inspired millions of African Americans to employ civil disobedience to achieve equal rights.
Martin Luther King adhered to Gandhi’s guidelines for civil disobedience to protest segregation and helped ensure equal rights for African Americans in the process. King espoused his philosophy on civil disobedience in a letter he wrote sitting in a Birmingham jail. The religious leaders who opposed the peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham – representing various denominations united in disapproval – stated their belief that protestors should not break local laws while demonstrating for their cause.
Dr. King replied to this charge with a powerful question about justice: “One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He supports this in later paragraphs by suggesting that the Constitution represents a just law that has been unevenly applied, allowing the unjust laws of segregation to remain in force and leaving a blot on the absolute fairness of our founding principles.
Written from jail after King was arrested for practicing civil disobedience, a ‘Letter from Birmingham’ espoused his views on rule of law that enabled social injustice and how it must be opposed:
“In any non violent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. We have gone through all these steps Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is perhaps the most thoroughly segregated cities in the United States.
Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any other city in the nation. These are hard brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers, but the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation” (King).
To King and other civil resisters, it is the right of every individual to fight for justice and equality by the virtue of his very birth, putting it forever opposed to any rule of law considered unjust. And, as Dr. King’s bedrock principle was nonviolent social change, he and his followers were beaten, blasted with fire-hoses, and jailed without ever striking a retaliatory blow. Their willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions showed an admirable respect for the rule of law in America. The letter states, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law” (King). By paying the price for civil disobedience, the Birmingham protestors were able to take the moral high ground from those who hid behind the strict interpretation of the law. While Dr. King is sure to warn against anarchical views of his statement to disobey laws, his argument against following unjust laws is sound and easy to understand.
Injustice and inequality can exist under rule of law, and civil disobedience is the best non-violent way to oppose the responsible government. While breaking any law is technically outside the rule of law, civil disobedience cannot be considered consistent with true unlawfulness. Lawmakers are not always sane, equal, or fair, and often prone to error in framing laws, and civil disobedience is the best way to use the law by breaking it.
While civil disobedience is not consistent with the rules of law, injustice and inequality seems to continued unabated, and the natural right of an individual is to oppose such laws. Civil disobedience will remain an effective method of opposing rule of law considered unjust, though determining justice may prove to be the most difficult part of the process, as well as the most important.
Gandhi, Mahatma. Nonviolent Resistance. 1961.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King Jr.].” African Studies Center –
University of Pennsylvania. 16 Apr 1963. 25 Apr 2008. <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>.
Thoreau, Henry D. “Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ (1849) or, ‘On the
Duty of Civil Disobedience’.” The Transcendentalists. 2008. 25 Apr 2008 <http://www.transcendentalists.com/civil_disobedience.htm>.