Civil Disobedience

Topics: Civil disobedience, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolence Pages: 6 (1926 words) Published: January 13, 2013
Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is defined as the refusal to obey certain laws or governmental demands for the purpose of influencing legislation or government policy. It is characterized by the employment of nonviolent techniques such as boycotting, picketing, and nonpayment of taxes. Civil disobedience is a nonviolent act of protest, which is caused by a moral belief that a law is wrong or otherwise known as unconstitutional. In the nineteenth century, the American author Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” an important essay justifying such action which started the boycotting and other nonviolent actions.

Civil disobedience was started by the American author Henry David Thoreau. Henry Thoreau established the modern theory behind the practice of civil disobedience in his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government,” which was published in 1849. The idea behind this essay was that of self-reliance, and how one is in morally good standing as long as one can “get off another man’s back.” The essay also stated that someone should not have to physically fight the government, but one must not support it. Civil disobedience can also be distinguished from other active forms of protest, such as rioting because of its passivity and non-violence. This essay has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience.

Henry David Thoreau protested the Mexican-American War and paying taxes, but his essay led to other protests as well. Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. found Thoreau’s essay very inspiring. Thoreau believed morality is more important than legality as shown below: “Must a citizen . . . resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”

Gandhi found guidance in Thoreau’s words and freed India from British rule. Martin Luther King Jr. also used Thoreau’s words to oppose racial segregation in the south of the United States of America. Both of these men used nonviolent strategies to secure the rights of people not being treated equally especially in a white-dominated societies. These two men dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom. Gandhi and King became towering figures in modern history because they took Thoreau’s words and learned from it. Gandhi and King were both assassinated because they challenged old prejudices and sought a better way of life for oppressed people.

Civil disobedience was exercised by Mahatma Gandhi while the struggle for independence in India continued in the twentieth century. Civil disobedience was also practiced by some members of the civil rights movement in the United States, notably Martin Luther King, Jr., to challenge segregation of public facilities; a common tactic of these civil rights supporters was the sit-in. King defended the use of civil disobedience in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Human rights activists have often challenged unfair social policies or business practices. Their methods are nonviolent and may include a variety of marches, rallies, and demonstrations. Instead of fighting back when force is used against them, activists meet that force with passive resistance. In every case, the goal is to dramatize injustice in as public a manner as possible. The activists began the crusade by breaking laws that separated people by race. Some examples are sit-ins at lunch counters, lining up at whites-only counters, and refused to sit in the rear “colored” section of the city buses. Hundreds went to jail for these actions, but the protests were never stopped.

India went through the same type of dedication and hard times for its independence that the activists that followed Martin Luther King Jr. had gone through for equal rights. As leader of the movement, Mohandas K. Gandhi was...

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Civil Disobedience. (2010). The Hotline. Retrieved from
Lopach, J. J., & Luckowski, J. A. (2005). Uncivil disobedience: violating the rules for breaking the law. Education Next, 5(2), 38+. Retrieved from
Bronwlee, K. (2007, January 4). Civil disobedience. Retrieved from
Thoreau, H. (1993). Civil disobedience and other essays. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Altman, L. (2002). Human rights: Issues for a new millenium. Chicago: Dover Publications, Inc.
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