History of Civil Disobedience Essay

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Civil disobedience occurs when a person refuses to obey a law or policy he or she believes to be unjust. Integrity-based civil disobedience involves citizens engaging in protest toward a law or policy they feel is immoral. Justice-based civil disobedience involves the disobeying of laws to obtain a denied right. Policy-based civil disobedience involves breaking the law in order to change a policy a citizen believes to be wrong. Civil disobedience has long been recognized as a fundamental right of American citizens. For instance, the Bill of Rights (1789) holds that citizens have the right to engage in civil disobedience if their conscience and the actions of government dictate it. Civil disobedience can take many forms, such as pamphleteering and letter writing, demonstrations and marches, worker strikes, and the occupation of public buildings. However, the exact nature of protest can vary considerably given the nature of the law or policy being demonstrated against. For example, campaigners for the legalization of cannabis have attended public demonstrations in possession of the drug, and they have also been known to organize illegal medical cannabis dispensaries to promote cannabis usage in order to combat illnesses and diseases they argue it is effective in treating.

Practitioners of civil disobedience risk retaliatory acts, including perhaps most important, the threat of physical violence and imprisonment. There is some disagreement between civil disobedience campaigners as to how protesters should respond to violence (from police or otherwise) as well as how they should submit to police arrest if it occurs. Some practitioners of civil disobedience argue that a campaigner must never engage in violence. Others argue violence is sometimes necessary to protect oneself from aggressive and violent members of the public, as well as from state-authorized violence committed by the police or armed forces. Furthermore, some practitioners of civil disobedience argue that protesters must not cooperate with police investigations or legal procedures, while others argue that it is necessary to cooperate so that the protesters can make their arguments heard. Some practitioners of civil disobedience seek to make a political point by winning an acquittal or avoiding a fine, often using the legal proceedings as an opportunity to inform observers of their reasons for breaking the law. There is also some debate among practitioners of civil disobedience as to whether protesters should plead guilty if they are charged, not least of all because pleading guilty can seem to imply wrongdoing and protesters may well believe they are not doing anything wrong when engaging in civil disobedience.

An important debate among civil disobedience campaigners involves the issue of nonviolent protest. Advocates of nonviolent civil disobedience reject completely the use of physical violence to achieve political goals. Voluntary human rights organizations which seek to promote civil liberties worldwide, such as Amnesty International, solely advocate nonviolent action. The use of nonviolent protest is held by some practitioners of civil disobedience to be a key measure by which the moral authority, social acceptability, and intellectual persuasiveness of their arguments can be demonstrated to other members of society. Perhaps just as importantly, nonviolence is how their activities can be most clearly distinguished from the actions of terrorists. Practitioners of nonviolent civil disobedience use a diverse range of proactive protest methods in their campaigns, including sit-ins, blockades, and hunger strikes.

Prominent campaigners who advocated nonviolent civil disobedience include Mahatma Gandhi, who led protests against British rule in India, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., who, following Gandhi, used nonviolent methods as he sought to win civil rights for African Americans. An important nonviolent political movement was the Velvet Revolution, which led to the peaceful overthrow of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Similar success was obtained by the Singing Revolution, which occurred across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the early 1990s, wherein protesters stood in front of Russian tanks and armed forces and sang national songs to help achieve independence. Such successes have been drawn upon by the Dalai Lama as he has advocated nonviolence to gain freedom from Chinese rule of Tibet.

Not all civil disobedience campaigners have advocated nonviolent action. Leon Trotsky, Subhash Chandra Bose, George Orwell, and Malcolm X, among others, were all ardent critics of nonviolent protest. They variously argued that the poor and socially excluded have more to lose than the middle classes or rich elites when engaging in nonviolent action, that revolutionary change to society necessarily involves some element of physical violence, and that the right to self-defense is a fundamental human right. For example, Black Panther George Jackson during the 1960s U.S. civil rights protests argued that nonviolent action would not by itself lead to social change. Similarly, Malcolm X clashed with U.S. civil rights leaders over the issue of nonviolence, arguing that violence should not be ruled out when no other option remained.

In a debate at the Oxford Union in 1965 on the topic “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice: moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” Malcolm X argued passionately that it was a crime for anyone being brutalized—as many African Americans were at the time—to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend themselves. Indeed, some civil disobedience commentators have argued that populist histories of social protest movements tend to ignore the involvement of more militant group members in both the Indian independence and U.S. civil rights movements. Furthermore, it is arguable that violent protest and civil disobedience by citizens is justifiable when nation-states break international law and engage in war crimes such as torture and genocide. Justifications for violent protest and civil disobedience must be balanced against the recognition that the refusal of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to engage in violence themselves, in spite of being physically assaulted and imprisoned, led to significant wider public sympathy and international support for their respective causes.


The history of civil disobedience in the United States reinforces the power of such forms of protest to engender social change. One of the earliest and most historically important examples of civil disobedience in the United States is arguably the Boston Tea Party. In 1773 the British Parliament passed the Tea Act which levied a tax on tea in the then British colonies in the United States. Protesters believed this violated their right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives and began a series of protests to stop the tea from being imported into the country through key colonial ports, of which Boston was one. Unlike elsewhere, and in no small part because the British governor in Boston, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to allow the tea to be returned to Great Britain, the protesters chose to destroy the tea by dumping it in the water.

This act played a key role in galvanizing wider support for independence from British colonial rule. It was also drawn upon by Henry David Thoreau as inspiration for his famous 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau had refused to pay poll taxes to his local tax collector, Sam Staples, as he was morally outraged with what he saw to be a corrupt American government that endorsed slavery and engaged in war against Mexico. He was sent to jail but was freed when a relative without his knowledge paid his debt. In “Civil Disobedience” he sought to justify the viewpoint that citizens must not allow governments to act with impunity and rule as they please and indeed that citizens have a civic and moral duty to engage in organized protest and civil disobedience to fight social injustice. His arguments influenced many political activists, including Gandhi and King.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century followed Thoreau’s lead, and under a First Amendment free speech campaign sought to organize workers and publicly speak about labor issues, frequently in the face of violent repression by local government and business authorities. IWW members were frequently beaten and imprisoned for causing public disorder. Some IWW members were even kidnapped and covered in tar and feathers by local vigilantes paid by the business community to disrupt their activities. Yet wherever the IWW campaigned it won the right to speak in public. Thoreau’s ideas also played a role in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lucy Stone and key members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), alongside the National Woman’s Party (NWP), engaged in protest and civil disobedience as they sought to secure equality and the right to vote for women. Many suffragists endured physical violence and imprisonment for pursuing their political goals. Women finally gained the right to vote in 1920 through the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the U.S. women’s movement has continued to be active on a range of issues such as abortion, domestic violence, trafficking, and forced prostitution, as well as the use of rape as a weapon of war.

The civil rights movement of the mid-20th century is another important moment in time for the history of civil disobedience in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, engaged in numerous nonviolent protests, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, the Greensboro sit-in in North Carolina, as well as the Montgomery and Washington, D.C., marches and public demonstrations. The civil rights movement is widely credited with achieving voting, employment, and home-ownership rights for African Americans. Other important movements during this time included the anti-Vietnam War protests.

Also bound up with the antiwar protests during the latter part of the 20th century was the antinuclear movement, which opposed the use of nuclear energy and weapons. In 1982 over a million people demonstrated in New York City’s Central Park and called for an end to the arms race against the Soviet Union. Aside from public marches and speeches, acts of civil disobedience in recent years have included maintaining peace camps near military bases and nuclear energy sites, as well as blockading and otherwise disrupting the transportation of nuclear materials. More broadly, the environmental movement in America has engaged in civil disobedience to protect animals and human beings from ecological harm, as well as to campaign against global warming. Although the movement

is largely made up of nonviolent activists, some militant elements do exist.

Arguments for and against violent and nonviolent forms of protest have become transformed over the last decade by the advances in communication technologies, which make it possible for activists seeking to get their message across to a broader audience to bypass more traditional forms of media, such as newspapers. The smartphone and the Internet have fundamentally transformed how contemporary civil disobedience demonstrations organize themselves, connecting people in ways that make the presentation of their grievances more immediate and user-led than ever before. While the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests illustrate the essential role modern forms of communication technology play in enabling individuals to mount political protests, it has been argued that both these social movements for change reinforce the notion that lasting change can be achieved only through some recourse to violence. This is particularly the case with the Occupy protests, whose actual long-term political impact, both within the United States and elsewhere, remains questionable for many.

The history of civil disobedience not only tells the story of how beliefs and values in the United States have changed and developed over the last 200 years, but also contains within it an important reminder of the power of nonviolent protest to engage in public debate and help achieve real social change. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that for some individuals, civil disobedience that embraces an element of violence remains a legitimate form of protest.


  1. Lefkowitz, D. On a Moral Right to Civil Disobedience Ethics, v.117 (2007).
  2. Singer, P. Democracy and Disobedience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
  3. Sunstein, C. Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  4. Thoreau, H. D. “Civil Disobedience.” In Civil Disobedience in Focus, H. A. Bedau, ed. London: Routledge, 1991.
  5. Zinn, H. Disobedience and Democracy. New York: Random House, 1968.
  6. Zunes, S. Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective. London: Blackwell Publishing, 1999.

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