“This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”
“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth . . . but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
—Henry David Thoreau (1)
What is Civil Disobedience?
In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau coined the term civil disobedience in his essay called On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Political philosopher John Rawls defined civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.” (2) The law being violated does not have to be the law that people find objectionable. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. When the law requires or allows lunch counters in department stores be reserved for whites only, and African Americans sit there anyway, they are directly violating the objectionable law. They may also stage an unpermitted demonstration on the street outside the department store, in which case they are violating city policies on demonstrations to call attention to the segregation laws surrounding places of public accommodation—in this case, whites only lunch counters in department stores. Both actions are examples of civil disobedience.
When people practice civil disobedience, they must do so thoughtfully, knowing and accepting the consequences of their actions. When one knowingly and publicly violates the law, one must be prepared to go to jail. Indeed, groups engaging in civil disobedience will sometimes do so with the intent of overtaxing local police and judicial resources, because that very fact serves to highlight the importance of the cause.
The nonviolent “requirement” for civil disobedience is somewhat controversial in the field of political philosophy and among activists. Nonviolent direct action has a long and celebrated history. (3) Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were famous for advocating and practicing strict nonviolent disobedience. However, others argue that strict nonviolence puts activists in a box. For example, political philosopher Robin Celikates has argued that slavish devotion to nonviolence is an unnecessary addition to the definition of civil disobedience. He argues for legitimate blockades, directly confronting security forces, and sabotaging facilities used for animal experiments or facilities built on disputed lands. In part, Celikates argues that these actions should be considered civil disobedience because state authorities have a tendency to pick and choose among political groups—labeling as violent any groups with whom they disagree, while not doing so for other groups. “Governments,” he writes, “pursue a strategy of divide and rule with regard to protest by portraying and celebrating certain forms of protest as good (good in terms of who protests, how and with what aim) and labeling and repressing other forms of protest – often those of marginalized groups – as violent, uncivil and criminal.” (4)
How Does One Decide When Civil Disobedience is Required?
The case for civil disobedience as a legitimate form of political behavior is easiest to make in dictatorships, oligarchies, theocracies, and other authoritarian regimes that don’t have institutions and practices intended to translate the will of the people into law and public policy. However, civil disobedience is also legitimate in places like the United States, which is characterized by attenuated democracy and oligarchic tendencies. There is always a tension in democracy between the desire to empower the majority and the classical liberal need to ensure that minority rights are not trampled. Sometimes the majority gets it wrong with respect to law or policy, and the political system is unresponsive to within-system efforts to fix the problem. However, these sorts of situations give rise to several dilemmas. How do we know when law or policy are sufficiently wrong? Who is allowed to make that determination? How do you know when you have sufficiently exhausted legal efforts to address the wrong? How does one decide when civil disobedience is required?
While confined in Birmingham City Jail in 1963 for civil disobedience targeting that city’s segregationist policies, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter in response to a letter in local papers from eight local clergy who criticized the actions of the civil rights movement of which King was a leader. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, King argued that unjust laws must be opposed, even if it means breaking the law. (5) He then made arguments regarding how to recognize just and unjust laws.
- “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or with the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
- “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”
- “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.”
- “An unjust law is a code that is inflicted upon a minority which that minority had not part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote.”
- “There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”
What do you think of those arguments? Can you think of concrete examples of what might fit each definition of just and unjust? Do you find them equally applicable? Do you think reasonable people would be able to apply those rules easily, or might they disagree about them?
How long must we live with injustice before we act? Many would argue that we must give organizing, lobbying, voting, and other forms of political engagement a chance to fail before we opt for civil disobedience. Thoreau acknowledged that some forms of injustice can be waited out, giving them time to “wear smooth” in the ordinary course of political development. He was most concerned with laws and policies that turn us into unwilling instruments of oppression or injustice. Those, he argued, merited immediate civil disobedience. King and his colleagues in the civil rights movement were continually berated for pushing for too much change too quickly. He responded in the Letter from Birmingham Jail this way:
“Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
Prominent Examples of Civil Disobedience
There are many historically significant examples of civil disobedience, and there’s no rational way to decide which ones a college-educated person should know. Should you know about demonstrations blocking clinics that provide abortion services? Should you know about actions freeing animals being used in experiments? Yes, of course. To make matters worse, some prominent examples of civil disobedience don’t come from the American experience. Therefore, we’re going assert—without a defense—that any college-educated person should be familiar with the following examples of civil disobedience. Knowing these examples will help you situate contemporary examples you read about in the news–or your own actions–in a broader historical context.
Henry David Thoreau—As mentioned above, Thoreau coined the term civil disobedience and his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience has certainly been one of the most globally influential pieces of political writing by an American who wasn’t a politician. Disgusted with slavery and the war with Mexican, which he saw as an unjust attempt to extend slavery to new territory, Thoreau refused to pay his Massachusetts poll tax and spent a night in jail. He said that prison was “the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor.” His friends paid his tax without his consent and he was released. When his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson asked him why he had gone to jail, Thoreau reportedly replied “Why did you not?” (6)
The White Rose—Numerous people resisted the Nazi regime in Germany. People rose up in extermination and work camps, committed sabotage, tried to assassinate Adolph Hitler, and helped Jews and others escape persecution. One resistance movement was called the White Rose, which consisted mostly of young people who abhorred the regime’s racism and antisemitism as well as the destruction unleashed when Germany invaded western and eastern Europe. Among the leaders of the White Rose were siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl and other college students such as Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf. Kurt Huber, a Munich University professor, acted as a mentor to the group. The White Rose wrote graffiti on buildings in Munich—e.g., Hitler Mass Murder, Freedom—and printed thousands of leaflets that they secretly left in university buildings and elsewhere. On February 18, 1943, the Scholls were seen distributing leaflets at the university and the group’s leadership was rounded up. Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst were found guilty of treason four days later and were beheaded. Schmorell, Graf, and Huber were also later executed, and ten other members were sentenced to prison. The British Royal Air Force got ahold of the last leaflet printed by the White Rose and dropped hundreds of thousands of copies of it over Germany. (7)
Gandhi—In 1893, while serving as a lawyer in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi took up the cause of discrimination against Indians. On one occasion, Gandhi refused to move from a first-class railroad car when a white passenger objected. He was thrown off the train at the next stop. After the end of World War I, Gandhi emerged as a leader of India’s independence movement against colonial British rule. At the Massacre of Amritsar in 1919, colonial forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators and killed 400 of them. Gandhi organized marches, boycotts, walkouts and tax protests. Gandhi’s most famous act of defiance was the Salt March of 1930. The British had imposed laws against Indians collecting or selling salt and had imposed a tax that fell heavily on poor Indians. Gandhi walked for twenty-four days over 240 miles from his home to the coast where he broke the law by gathering salt from evaporated seawater. Gandhi was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1930. India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, who did not like Gandhi’s tolerance of Muslims. (8)
The American Civil Rights Movement—The civil rights movement engaged in coordinated political, legal, and nonviolent direct-action strategies to overcome housing segregation, educational segregation, voter discrimination, segregation of public accommodations, and a variety of other manifestations of racism. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the “colored section” of a public bus. She was not the first to engage in this kind of protest, but she became the most famous because her action stimulated a city-wide boycott of Montgomery, Alabama’s bus system by African Americans. The boycott’s organizers elected newcomer Martin Luther King, Jr. to coordinate and lead the effort. In another example, the Greensboro Four—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil—all of whom were students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, sat down at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store and refused to leave. Their actions spread to college towns across the South. (9)
Climate Strikes—In 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish student, started boycotting school on Fridays to call attention to the climate emergency. Her action blossomed into a worldwide #FridaysForFuture movement. Millions of students in 117 countries have participated in multiple iterations of this form of protest. The goal of the movement is to “Sound the alarm and show our politicians that business as usual is no longer an option.” (10) As if to show the students how clueless politicians were, British Prime Minister Theresa May criticized the protesters and said that each demonstration “increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time.” (11) God forbid we take time away from school lessons to fight something as trivial as a climate crisis that threatens to disrupt human civilization. When she was asked to speak at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019, Thunberg stuck to her values and made the crossing from Sweden to New York by sailboat rather than jet plane.
As you can see, the consequences of civil disobedience can range from missing school to losing one’s life. Civil disobedience has achieved many policy and law changes in human history, and it will always be in the political activist’s toolkit.
- Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. 1849. Project Gutenburg.
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. Pages 364-366.
- Mark Kurlansky, Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Random House, 2008.
- Robin Celikates, “Democratizing Civil Disobedience,” Philosophy and Social Criticism. March, 2016. Page 3.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail. April 16, 1963. Stanford UniversityMartin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Page 156. Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Pages 246-247.
- Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Page 628-629.
- Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire. University of California Press, 2008.
- No author, “Greensboro Sit-in,” History.com. February 4, 2010.
- Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash, “Climate Strikes: What They Accomplish and How They Could Have More Impact,” Forbes. September 14, 2019. Damian Carrington, “School Climate Strikes: 1.4 Million People Took Part, Say Campaigners,” The Guardian. March 19, 2019.
- Alan McGuinness, “Theresa May Criticizes Pupils Missing School to Protest Over Climate Change,” Sky News. February 15, 2019.