I was re-reading several essays regarding the civil rights movement and I came across a term that was used to describe Dr. King’s theory of nonviolence. The term was “civil disobedience.” In the context of the contemporary struggle of Black people I considered this term. What I came to realize was that, like so many terms and propositions in liberation philosophy, this term has a new meaning and connotation in today’s context.
Civil Disobedience according to King
Traditionally civil disobedience was used by Dr. King to describe the nonviolent protests that he incited and supported. It was Dr. King’s way of explaining to White people the virtue of encouraging people to break the law. Dr. King’s premise was that because he was not encouraging people to violent means, it did not hold the danger of anarchy. He furthered his premise by justifying any man’s right to protest injustice.
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
What Dr. King brought into question was morality versus legality. His conclusion was that the law is not always reflective of what is right. That people had an obligation to judge laws and to choose what is morally right.
Civil Disobedience according to Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay “Civil Disobedience” to explore the rationale behind protest and Revolution. For Thoreau governmental laws are not the highest. He believed that government could not always be depended to define what is right. That was the right of the individual.
I think 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.
– Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau believed that government and its laws should be created in a way which pprepared for reform. Therefore taking the stance of not being the ultimate right but of being the right for the moment and context and when those laws ceased to be “right” in the current context they should be reformed. If any opposition to reform should exist, then the people had every right to disobey those laws in pursuit of what is right. Whatever consequences that follow are the burden of the government’s rigidness.
Much as Thoreau asserts about laws in government is true about all philosophy (which is, of course, where laws come from). They should and must be developed with room for reform. So when one considers the thought behind “civil disobedience” it must be defined I the current context. For Dr. King at the beginning of his tenure in the civil rights movement, nonviolent protest such as sit-ins and marches were the expression of civil disobedience. That definition changed with the Black Power Movement as the definition for civil disobedience included instances of violence and the expression was more aggressive than passive.
In today’s context civil disobedience is more about perception and lifestyle than demonstration. What we have learned from the history of the struggle is that what we allow to persist on a daily basis becomes habit (which is nothing more than passive acceptance). Those habits then become the status quo-an accepted ideal that dictates what is “right.”
Civil disobience to injustice has to be palpable way of living. It’s must be so ingrained in the very fibers of our being so that whenever injustice rears its ugly head it is quickly decapitated. If not it becomes hydra-headed beast that cannot be controlled. It learns to resist attack and to regenerate when wounded creating a reign of terror that pervades for decades. Hence, here we are still struggling to slay the monster that we allowed to survive the battles of old through our inability to redefine the weapons that were at our disposal.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man