Civil Disobedience

For an action to be considered an act of civil disobedience, certain criteria must be met. The protest must be public and witnessed by other citizens, the protest must be nonviolent and collective, and citizens must be protesting against laws, policies, or practices that they consider immoral or unjust to society and individuals. The practice of nonviolent protests, however, does not shield the protesters from the potential of violence from everyday citizens, police officers, and other high-ranking officials who do not want them protesting the status quo in society. Violence against protestors has ranged from yelling and spitting to psychological and physical injury—including death in some instances.

The practice of civil disobedience has been utilized to protest against laws and government policies that support racial inequality, gender inequality, animal cruelty, discrimination, and environmental degradation. In American history, the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, is considered one of the first examples of civil disobedience, when American colonists protested against taxation and destroyed huge cargos of tea shipped from Britain. Since that time, civil disobedience has become a common form of protest in the United States and has ranged from environmentalists protesting oil drilling to citizens protesting the use of surveillance by the U.S. government after the attacks on September 11, 2001. In 2013, environmentalists used civil disobedience in front of the White House to protest and bring attention to the Barack Obama administration’s lack of policies concerning the drilling of oil and climate change.

Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for India’s independence from British rule during the 1920s to 1940s and his large-scale protest against racism, discrimination, and the mistreatment of people from India living in South Africa brought attention to the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience as a means to rally for civil rights. Inspired by Gandhi’s civil disobedience protests, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used civil disobedience to protest the U.S. laws of legal segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Civil Rights Movement

In the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. citizens (both black and white) used civil disobedience to protest the laws of legal segregation in the South. The Civil Rights Movement is an example of the use of civil disobedience to protest laws, policies, and practices that citizens consider unjust to individuals. The public protest against these laws and government policies took place in the form of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and marches. On college campuses across the United States, students used sit-ins as a form of civil disobedience to protest issues such as separate lunch counters for whites and blacks and the government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Sit-ins at a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina were the catalyst that compelled the Woolworth chain of stores to change its policy on separate lunch counters for whites and blacks across the South. On February 1, 1960, four black college students (Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond) from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro walked into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at the white lunch counter, and didn’t leave until the store closed. The next day, they were joined by other students, and by the 4th day, hundreds of students were involved in the sit-in at the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro. In addition, in fewer than 10 days after the sit-in began, college students in several counties in North Carolina held sit-ins in their towns. In addition, college students in Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee, joined the growing number of protesters. As a result, Woolworth’s caved under the pressure and changed its policy on separate lunch counters for whites and blacks.

Civil Rights Marches

The use of marches as a form of civil disobedience garnered the Civil Rights Movement an enormous amount of public attention and media coverage, which helped propel the movement forward. The media coverage allowed Americans to witness the treatment of the nonviolent protestors (including women and children) from their living rooms. The protestors were beaten with police clubs, sprayed with fire hoses, bitten by dogs, and bombarded with tear gas. As with the sit-ins, the participants faced the possibility of arrest, injury, or, in some instances, even death. Some of the notable marches include the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, with the first of the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches often referred to as “Bloody Sunday” because so many people were beaten, maimed, and killed by the police as they marched to Alabama’s capital. In these marches, thousands showed their public outrage regarding the unequal treatment of African Americans, the need for jobs, the plight of the poor, and unequal rights, including voting rights. The protestors understood the law that allowed them to voice their grievances about policies and the government in a collective group. On August 28, 1963, thousands of citizens, in the spirit of civil disobedience, marched in Washington, D.C., to protest the lack of economic growth for African Americans. The march was mostly peaceful, devoid of the violence that citizens would witness 2 years later during the march to Montgomery. The Selma-to-Montgomery marches were a 54-mile walk with a focus on the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment (the right to vote). On August 6, 1965, just a few months after the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and a series of other marches, the then president Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ensuring that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would be enforced.

Ruth Thompson-Miller

See also Civil Rights Movement ; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ; Civil Liberties .

Further Readings

Allen, Barbara. “Martin Luther King’s Civil Disobedience and the American Covenant Tradition.” Publius, v.71 (2000).

Armaline, William T., et al. Human Rights in Our Own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks: A Life. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.

Carson, Clayborne, ed.The Autobiography of Martin L. King, Jr. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2001.

Combs, Barbara. From Selma to Montgomery: The Long March to Freedom (Critical Moments in American History). New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

Garrow, David. “The Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Journal of the Southern Regional Council, v.7/5 (1985).

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History, v.91/3 (2005).

Jones, William P. The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2014.

Klinkner, Philip A. and Rogers M. Smith. The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

McGuire, Danielle L. and John Ditter. Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.

O’Brien, M. J. and Julian Bond. We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Thoreau, Henry David.Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993.