Civil Disobedience Essay, Research Paper
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
The Civil Rights movement provided a period of dynamic changes in the infrastructures as well as the social constructs that were embedded and internalized in this country for hundreds of years. The movement was a culmination of many emotions such as anger and tension which built up over time and lead to an all out rebellion. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the procrastination and subsequent denial of rights in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, he says “justice to long delayed is justice denied the patience is over”(King, 63). He also says that “to arouse the conscience of the community” it was necessary that “justice must be demanded by the oppressed”(King, 62). During the middle fifties and through the sixties the Civil Rights movement captivated the media’s attention and segregation issues were a permanent fixture in the spotlight. It may seem that problems from segregation were limited to the South however, the issues were not. The South was often the cite of violence but racism was not limited to that region. The uprising of the oppressed was not a product of an overnight realization and many of the driving forces of the movement were deeply, if not wholly based on the ideals and principles of the past. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is often considered as the leader of the entire movement, practiced non-violent protests, which he had learned from Ghandi. Ghandi studied the essay of “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau. The ideas and concepts behind the non-violent protests were described in detail in Thoreau’s essay. The essay provides extensive information to those who wish to learn of effective ways to generate change through nonviolence. In contrast to the peaceful idea of civil disobedience, the Civil Right movement often provoked violent reactions.
Thoreau felt that it was a sort of tradition in America to be defiant to authority. The European dominant culture who “created” our country did so through rebellion. It is important to note that “Civil Disobedience” was written years before the Civil Rights movement was ever suggested. The concept of justice and conscience are motivating themes in his essay. Civil disobedience supplied the movement with a sound foundation to build on. Moreover it gave the Civil Rights movement a sort of nobleness. The movement and demonstrations were carried out through peaceful actions with the demonstrators holding their heads high, knowing that they could, at any time, be beaten or attacked. “Civil Disobedience” called for a government that “governed not at all” (Thoreau, 11). Thoreau said that a “majority rule must be based on justice” (Thoreau, 13). The aspects of individuality and inclusive thinking that Thoreau used in civil disobedience were contrary to all the stereotypes and margins that the white dominant culture wanted the blacks to believe. However philo-sophical and deeply rooted in the theological the issues dealing with civil disobedience may seem, often the response to civil disobedience was physical and violent. King said “civil disobedience is not the creator of tension. It merely brings to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive”(King, 65). In contrast, the whites said that the action of civil disobedience “even though peaceful must be condemned because they precipitate violence”(King, 65-66). Bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches are all forms of civil disobedience. In many cases the acts of civil disobedience turned violent when white supremacists would attack the demonstrators. The violence, subsequent arrests, and beatings were not unprepared for by the oppressed, King stated that it was ones “legal and moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the punishment”(King, 69).
Bus Boycotts were the flower that blossomed from the seed planted by Rosa Parks, and watered by segregation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided the sunlight possible for the growth. The seating structure on buses worked as follows, the first ten rows were white only, and the last ten for blacks, the rows in the middle were not only for whites, but if seating was needed the whites had the right to the seat. Mrs. Parks did not agree with the rule and refused to give up her seat. The boycott was a well planned and thought out way to systematically force a change through nonviolence. The blacks would car pool in replace of public transportation. This led to a law stating that car-pooling was illegal because it hindered the bus industry’s profits. Through persistence and patience the boycott prevailed, and in December the laws that desegregated the buses were passed. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a success, desegregation was accomplished. That day, which was a joyful one for the blacks turned bloody. Angry mobs of whites attacked the buses that had been segregated. Snipers opened fire on the buses. All this violence whites said, was caused by the act of civil disobedience. They wanted you to believe that because the blacks nonviolently desegregated the buses it caused the whites to act out violently against it. It seems that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a pertinent point when he said that civil disobedience merely brought out the nature of the beast. For example, the Freedom Riders, and more specifically John Lewis. In the article about the book A Hero of Our Time, John Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders. Lewis had been beaten by a mob of angry whites while he participated in a freedom ride, and to had been knocked out by a white man with a crate (Nelson, 1).
The Civil Rights movement required great patience by those who were attacking the movement in a nonviolent manner. However, those who participated in sit ins were one of the most rapid ways to get results through nonviolent demonstration. When participating in a sit in you either got served, kicked out, or arrested. The Greensboro Four are recognized as the first to participate in a sit in. The concept behind the sit in was simple, they waited until the stools were open and they sat down. The bar was for whites only, so they did not get served. This parallels to the bus boycott in the fact that the owners felt that the sit-ins were detrimental to there business. The sit-ins expanded from restaurants to places like parks and beaches. Sit-ins were carried out peacefully and with good intent but they also tested the patience of the whites who wished to eat and the white owners who wanted better business. When the majority that rules by physical strength does not have its way then it reverts to its animalistic nature and uses force. In many occasions the participants were arrested and beaten.
The most successful or maybe most recognized form of civil disobedience that was used in the Civil Rights movement was marches. The most recognizable of the marches was the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. At this march Dr. King delivered his “I have a Dream Speech.” This march was performed at a high level of attention by the media, caused by the extremely large crowd and the fact that the march was on the nation’s capital. Violence did not erupt from this demonstration. Other less recognized marches were, on the other hand, very bloody. The March from Selma to Montgomery in February 1965 is a prime example. Nicknamed Bloody Sunday, the march was abruptly stopped, and the demonstrators were attacked by police on horseback and sprayed with tear gas. This march enabled violence because it was held on a much lower scale numerically and that it took place in Alabama. Alabama had a history of racial violence. Lewis who was participating in the march sustained a fractured skull from the club of a policeman (Nelson, 1).
In conclusion, there are a large amount of solid facts that can be assumed though the research that has been conducted. First, Thoreau provided many ideals in his essay “Civil Disobedience” that can be seen as themes throughout the Civil Rights movement. “Civil Disobedience” stated
“The only obligation which I have a right to
assume is to do at any time what I think is
right Unjust leads to rebellion Men first,
subjects afterwards Men who serve the state
become machines A majority is permitted and for a
long period continue, to rule, not because they
are more likely to be in the right, nor because
this seems fairest to the minority, but because
they are physically strongest I say break the
law, let your life be the counter friction to
stop the machine A minority is powerless while it
conforms to the majority; it is not even a
minority then”(Thoreau 11-31).
A second conclusion is that King seemed to be indeed correct when he said that civil disobedience brought out hidden hatreds. Based on the research, the violence that occurred because of the peaceful demonstrations was often performed by white hate groups. The Ku Klux Klan for example, whose bombings that terrorized Birmingham earned the city the nicknames “Bombingham” and “Dynamite Hill”(Langford, 1). George Wallace presents the embodiment of all Southern white hate. As the Governor of Alabama, he stressed segregation, he stood in door ways to prevent segregation. He ordered his police, under the lead of Klan member Bull Connor, to use dogs, tear gas, and high powered hoses to quiet the uprising minority (Langford, 4). In the end, civil disobedience and its moralistic view triumphed over the fiercely one-dimensional view of the white supremacists. The lessons that can be learned from the Civil Rights movement and civil disobedience are similar to the lessons being taught the Race, Class, and Gender book. The oppressed began to recognize the wrongs and they began to use their minds to break the margins placed on them. Their inclusive thinking caused the majority to open their mental sets and shifting the center from ‘might makes right’ to conscience and justice.
Carroll, Jon. “A Black Space in the Sky.” Lexis-Nexis 14
July 1999. 20July 1999