The Reach of Civil Disobedience

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

by Liane LaBouef

During the black Civil Rights movement, the use of civil disobedience (mass gatherings, marches, sit-ins, etc.) was noteworthy. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most famous advocate of non-violent civil disobedience. Unfortunately, because of their massive amount of frustration, bred by segregation and other oppressions, other blacks resorted to rioting as a way to achieve their goal of racial equality, although it was more of an angry outburst of emotions rather than an actual protest. Both rioting and civil disobedience had a degree of effectiveness and helped to pressure the federal government into passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts. However, since modern day racism is more camouflaged than it was in the 20th century, these same tactics would be much less successful today. In fact, because there are no longer laws that are explicitly racist against blacks, the forms of protest that were so crucial to Civil Rights movement would be nearly ineffective.

King’s ideology of civil disobedience revolved around a core principle, one that happens to be in its name: disobedience. A systematic, well-mannered disobedience of what he deemed to be “unjust laws.”[1] For example, sit-ins, where black men and women sat at the whites-only lunch counter and asked for service, was one method that King advocated.1 These types of protests were a powerful proclamation of the bravery of the black activists, and they also highlighted the absurdity of segregation. Nonviolent marches, such as the Selma March in 1965,[2] were another way for black activists to express their discontentment. The Selma March was put on to specifically protest the violence against blacks who tried to vote.[3]

Civil disobedience and marches were part of a wider strategy King called “nonviolent direct action.”1 As he stated in the letter he wrote from Birmingham jail to his critics: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”[4] The nonviolent activists wanted to draw enough of the American people's attention to the issue of racism that those in power had to take notice, and footage of peaceful, unarmed protesters being beaten by police officers did capture quite a bit of attention. The laws in place at the time were blatantly, unapologetically racist, and those in the Civil Rights movement recognized that in order for racism to end those laws needed to be changed. For them the end goal was negotiation with the government.

But where do we stand now? Official segregation is no more. On paper at least, blacks are allowed all the freedoms that whites enjoy. Civil disobedience can no longer work, since there are simply no laws to break. People can march, but what they would be marching for would not be obvious to outsiders, especially white outsiders. If blacks protest the police racially profiling them, the answer seems obvious to whites: stop committing crimes. If blacks protest their disproportionately lower economic status, again so many whites counter with, “stop being lazy and get a job.” The people in the Selma March protested racial discrimination during voting,[5] an issue that was greatly helped by the passage of a law (the Voting Rights Act), and subsequent protests helped to make that law a practical reality. However, something like changing the racial views of every officer on the force or fixing the financial situation of a large group of people is not so easily remedied. A change in police department policies or the implementation of new government programs would treat the symptoms, but the disease of prejudice would still endure. America has dealt with its racist laws, now it has to deal with its racist culture, and the solution is not nearly as obvious as it was in the 20th century.

How society perceives and deals with the issues of race today has residual flaws from the previous generations. In his letter, King described the South with phrases such as “stinging darts of segregation” and “vicious mobs” who lynched and drown blacks “at whim.” This is no longer the reality, but there are some things he described, namely “hate filled policemen [who] curse, kick and even kill,”[6] that are disturbingly familiar.[7] The Civil Rights movement and all its strategies and tactics has served its purpose. It’s time for a new strategy. Blacks can utilize the rights they have secured to fight modern racism. They legally have the right to fair trial, and if they do not get one they can use the right to sue and the right of free press to combat the injustice. They can use the right to vote to elect leaders into political office who have their best interest in mind. They have the right to marry someone of another race, and as American society becomes more integrated, the superficial lines between the races will start to fade. Such is the new ‘nonviolent direct action.’




[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, 1963

[2] Exclusive - John Lewis Extended Interview Video - March 9, 2015 | Comedy Central." The Daily Show.

[3] Lewis Interview.

[4] King.

[5] Lewis Interview.

[6] King.

[7] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "As Riots Follow Freddie Gray's Death in Baltimore, Calls for Calm Ring Hollow." April 27, 2015.

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