Civil rights & civil disobedience

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civil rights & civil disobedience

  • political action for change

Civil Disobedience

  • Refusal to obey a law on the grounds that it is immoral or unjust in itself
  • Appeals to the majority’s sense of justice, in order to get them to reconsider and change public policy.
  • Goal: to put the issue on the public’s agenda, to call attention to an unjust law. Disobedience must be open and public.

Roots of the Idea

  • Henry David Thoreau
    • Jailed in the 1840s for refusing to pay a poll tax. The tax supported the war with Mexico and the extension of slavery, which he strongly opposed. Thoreau did pay his other taxes.
    • Coined the term “civil disobedience” in the title of his essay arguing in favor of non-violent opposition to slavery.

Thoreau’s civil disobedience

  • Key Arguments:
  • Unjust laws require our action in order to work. He advocated resistance: "I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."
  • Normal legal channels to overturn those laws either do not exist or take too long.
  • Civil disobedience effective: if abolitionists withdrew their support of government, then slavery would end in a peaceful revolution.


  • In 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for the crime of refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. This incident sparked the civil rights movement.
  • MartinLuther King led numerous civil rights marches and activities involving nonviolent direct action.
  • Mahatma Ghandi. Led India’s independence fight from British in 1915

Nonviolent Resistance

  • Strategies
  • Sit-ins at segregated businesses (esp. restaurants)
  • Boycotts of segregated buses & businesses
  • Marches
  • Lawsuits
  • Voter registration drives
  • Newspaper ads and articles
  • Activists were fired from jobs; expelled from schools.
  • Law enforcement used dogs, fire hoses, tear gas against
  • them. Hate groups employed beatings, bombs, house
  • & church fires, and even murder.

Civil disobedience

  • Public in two ways:
    • Not done in secret but in the open
    • Intended to serve broad public interest, not individual self interest.

Current examples of civil disobedience

  • Protestors at the World Trade Organization meetings who march inside areas that are restricted.
  • Anti-abortion protestors who block access to clinics that provide abortions.

Lawful protests vs. civil disobedience

  • Only unlawful non-violent protest is civil disobedience. Actions that do not break the law are not civil disobedience.
  • Examples:
    • Boycotts of certain agricultural products led by the United Farm Workers in the 1960s & 70s (Cesar Chavez & Dolores Huerta).
    • Anti-war protestors outside Las Cruces City Hall every Wednesday afternoon.

Violent protests vs. civil disobedience

  • Only non-violent unlawful protest is civil disobedience. Violent actions are not civil disobedience, even when fighting against unjust or immoral laws.

Comparisons: Goals

  • terrorist revolutionary civil disobedient
  • -------------------------------------------------------------------
  • Destabilize Overthrow Change unjust law
  • society thru government or set of laws
  • fear to achieve
  • political purpose
  • With a partner brainstorm
  • a list of issues:
  • consider a situation in which you might use civil disobedience

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