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The Concept Of Civil Disobedience

From the onset of man fighting for freedom or his beliefs, the question has always been whether one person can make a difference using words rather than wars. Philosophically, the concept of civil disobedience would appear to be an ineffective weapon against political injustice; history however has proven it to repeatedly be one of the most powerful weapons of the common man. Martin Luther King Jr. looked at the way African Americans were treated in the United States and saw an inequality. By refusing to pay his taxes and subsequently being imprisoned for a night, Henry David Thoreau demonstrated his intolerance for the American government.

Under British rule, India remained oppressed until Mohandas Gandhi, with his doctrine of non-violence lead the country to freedom. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had faith in his beliefs of equality, and that all people, regardless of race should be free and governed under the same laws. In the later part of the 1960’s, Birmingham, Alabama, the home of King, was considered to be the most racially divided city in the South. “Birmingham is so segregated, we’re within a cab ride of being in Johannesburg, South Africa”, 1 when King said this he was only speaking half jokingly.

In Birmingham the unwritten rule towards blacks was that “if the Klan doesn’t stop you, the police will. “2 When King decided that the time had come to end the racial hatred, or at least end the violence, he chose to fight in a non-traditional way. Rather than giving the white people the pleasure of participating in violent confrontations, King believed if they fought without violence for their rights, they would have a faster success rate. King also saw Birmingham as the major problem in America. If Birmingham could be cracked, the direction f the entire non-violent movement in the South could take a significant turn.

It was our faith that as Birmingham goes, so goes the South 3 King saw the root of the problem in a place he could assist in rescuing. He gathered together his group of supporters and volunteers. They were trained daily before they began to protest, not on how to fight back to the physical attacks they would receive, but to be prepared for the physical abuse they would have to endure. The volunteers were trained to believe that Bull Conor, the police sheriff, wanted them to fight back with violence. King taught them to accept it, and continue to participate in sit-ins and carry signs of protest.

King had the ability to inspire his demonstrators so that they feared nothing, not even death. And I know that when I say don’t be afraid you know what I mean. Don’t even be afraid to die. I submit to you tonight that no man is free if he fears death. But the minute you conquer the fear of death, at that moment you are free. You must say somehow, I don’t have much money; I don’t have much education; I may not be able to read and write, but I have the capacity to die. 4 When the demonstrators marched, they were jailed.

When they were released from jail they marched again. The blacks of Birmingham, with the aid of King, united together against the common enemy of racism. When King was imprisoned, he wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail, explaining the philosophy of non-violence and presenting one of the most well-founded justifications for direct action and civil disobedience. People in Birmingham criticised King about the timing of his demonstrations. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must e demanded by the oppressed.

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was `well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word `Wait’! It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This `Wait’ has almost always meant `Never’. We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that `justice too long delayed is justice denied. ‘5 With his desire to free himself and others equally oppressed, King and his dream moved forward with more rallies, marches and speeches.

It took four years from the time King began his crusade, until the glorious day in 1964, when he witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act. After Birmingham, King moved on to Selma, Alabama to fight for the right for blacks to have the vote. The violence against the demonstrators was obscene, and their only drive was for the success they would receive after they faced the pain of their fight. King encouraged people not look at this fight as a request for the right to vote, but rather as a demand for the freedom of choice. We must gain political power, and we must come o the point of being able to participate in government.

No longer must we be willing to be disenfranchised. We must say, “Give us the ballot. ” We are determined to have the ballot, and we are determined to have it now. 6 After protests and non-violent action, Martin Luther King Jr. met with President Johnson to discuss a new Voting Rights Act. An act allowing blacks to vote for the first time ever. That day in 1965 was the high point of the entire civil rights movement. It was achieved because an oppressed people saw the indignity they were facing and banded together to stop it..

They did not fight or use vicious warfare. They gave their demands and protested peacefully until their desires were recognised and acted upon. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to get his ideas across, and knew what would be the most effective way of doing so. The piece of literature that influenced him most in his decision to fight the way he did was On The Duty of Civil Disobedience, by Henry Thoreau. By watching those before him, King understood that fighting violence with violence was not the answer. `Government is best which governs the least.

This motto sincerely accepted by Henry David Thoreau was the beginning platform for his move into civil disobedience in 1848. Unlike other freedom fighters, Thoreau was not racially oppressed by anyone. He honestly believed that a composed government was a root of man’s problems. With the adopted motto, Thoreau’s desire was to see it acted upon, and become a stronger version of what he wanted.. His goal was to see a government that followed his idea of “`government is best which governs not at all. ‘ And when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have. Thoreau saw no need for a government that supported slavery, and would not put an end to it.

He believed that people who are waiting for the laws of their nation to justly free them are wasting their time. “The law, will never make men free; it is the men who have got to make the law free. “8 Thoreau, unlike others was not promoting non-violence. He was an anarchist who was opposed to any form of government. Henry Thoreau did not have a following behind him, he had to begin on his own, gradually convincing people to give support his ideals. He knew that there were others in society who had beliefs not unlike his own.

The slavery that was taking place bothered other people as well, the difference was, that they were not prepared to suffer or stand up for the rights of others. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade. . . . They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect.

They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. 9 Thoreau thought that it was not enough to feel strongly for something, if no actions were to come of it. His views on slavery were the strongest, and though it was not he who was enslaved, he knew it was wrong and condemned others for not having the courage to do anything about it. He also knew that men were not going to stand up as individuals to fight for the rights of others.

Men act only in numbers, and there is little virtue in the actions of masses of men. When the majority shall, at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will the be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. 10 By refusing to pay his taxes, Thoreau was stating the simple fact that he was not going to support financially what he did not believe to be just government.

He also believed that if man could survive without money, he would be a better person because money was a major influence in all problems. If man could be self sufficient without money, there would be no need for a ruling party over the people. If man could survive relying only by his own means, he would be stronger than others who depend on other people to live. The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it.

Thoreau honestly felt that when a man did become rich, the only way in which he could make himself truly worthy was to remain the way he did when he was poor. By making his thoughts and feelings accessible in books and poems, he became recognised for his ideals. Thoreau did not make drastic changes the way Martin Luther King did, but he began to educate people on what he viewed as their faults. The changes he made were small, and he did them only because it was what he believed. His goal was not to free masses of people from cruel injustices, but rather to free himself from the state which governs him.

In writing his beliefs, and expressing the ideas of using literature as weaponry, he influenced men who would take his ideas and use them to help free nations and save people from unjust government ruling. The stronger the man with the ideals, the more influence he can have on his cause. Mohandes H. Gandhi saw an injustice he wanted resolved and moved with strength and courage to win his battle. India was under British rule, and yet they were still forced to live with unjust laws. Gandhi saw the way that the British government ruled over them, and he also knew how strong Britain was as a country.

Perhaps the most influential person in the ideas of nonviolence, Gandhi wanted change and was prepared to die for his cause. He adopted a spirituality which enabled him to appeal to religious individuals as well as those who believed in his politics of liberation. He became known as Mahatma, meaning `good soul’ in Indian. For Gandhi the fight was not just about nonviolence, but about truth and love for human beings. He saw sacrifice of self as the law of life, and lived by that ideal. His dream was to see his country free from Britain, without war, and without blood shed, using soul-force only.

Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to doa thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance, the government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the government to repeal the law, I am employing what may be termed body- force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self. 12 Gandhi saw this soul force as an immense strength for India, and not a weakness like some others viewed it as.

To use the soul and the heart over the power of violence was a true demonstration of courage and ability. Gandhi hated nothing more than cowardice, and if people felt that nonviolence was, he would rather them utilize violent actions. “If cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight. ” 1 3 Nonviolence was not synonymous with fear or the passive acceptance of evil. A victory won through nonviolence was preferable to one earned through violent means. ” The aftermath of nonviolence, is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness. 4

Gandhi rejected the idea that nonviolence meant meek submission to the will of the oppressor and felt the term passive resistance was a misnomer. What he believed was on the contrary, nonviolent resistance is active and provocative. Through peaceful marches and campaigns, people began to become aware, and Gandhi was known throughout he world, and he gained worldwide support. The continuous fighting between the Hindus and the Muslims was of great distress to Gandhi, and he feared that if the neighboring countries of India and Pakistan could not come together, there was no hope for world peace.

On September 18, 1924, Gandhi started a twenty-one day fast for Hindu-Moslem friendship. For Gandhi, an act had to be right and true. Service meant sacrifice, renunciation, and detachment. You detach yourself from yourself. All that remains then is your duty. Gandhi felt that it was his duty to fast. “It is our duty, to strengthen by our fasting those who hold the same ideals but are likely to weaken under pressure. ” 15 Gandhi’s greatest display of civil disobedience occurred when he was 61 years old, and decided to walk for twenty-four days to pick up a pinch of salt in public defiance of Britain’s salt monopoly laws.

His followers went with him, into the sea, and gathered pans of water to make salt with. Mass arrests occurred, and the violators were jailed. When the arrests were taking place, the police began to become violent. The civil resisters never resisted arrest, but they did resist the confiscation of their salt. A major step had been taken against Britain by Gandhi, and thousands of Indians were ready to take any punishment the government was going to give them. On August 15, 1947, India gained independence from Britain.

Gandhi saw the problem which existed and stopped at nothing to achieve his goal. He freed India from British rule and did not fire a single shot. If people are willing to listen, one man can make a difference. The timing of intellectuals who see that change must be made is an important factor. Simply because a person has strong ideals, there is no guarantee that they will be listened to or respected. Francois-Marie Arouet, adopting the pen name of Voltaire, was too advanced in his thinking for the time period in which he lived.

He challenged all of the abuses that existed in France at the time, and satirized what he saw as societal flaws. People, however, weren’t educated in the sixteenth century, and were unaware of events happening in the larger society srrounding them. Voltaire wrote essays on his ideals and concerns, but they were never read by anyone but the intelligencia. In 1728, Voltaire wrote Philosophical Letters, 1734, which was a covert attack on the political ecclesiastical institutions of France. Writings like these lead Voltaire into conflict with the authorities.

Those who suffered persecution found in Voltaire, a strong defender. Voltaire had contradictions in his character that were evident in all of his writings, and he was able to defend either side of a story. He had a great talent, and yet he influenced few. He called on his contemporaries to act upon intolerance, tyranny and superstition. They did not listen to him, and he had no following like others after him would have, and that negated his influential abilities dramatically. Voltaire saw literature as a medium which should be useful and concerned with problems of the day.

He attacked war and self interest, and claimed that eventually “manners are softened, the human mind becomes more enlightened, and separate nations are brought closer to one another”16 He claims that his morality was formed on belief in freedom of thought and respect for all individuals, and in 1763 he published the Treaty of Tolerance. He wrote to condemn religious hatred and in support of universal acceptance of all people. Voltaire asked the Enlightenment to do what was possible to improve humanity, for people not to seek the Garden of Eden, but to work in a garden of their own making.

Voltaire did not support democracy however. He was at one with many in his time who believed that enlightened depotism, combined with an institutionalization of tolerance and liberty, was the best form of government. Voltaire feared giving too much power to the masses, who he viewed as uneducated and unenlightened. 17 Voltaire was unable to accept the beliefs of the lower and uneducated classes and also had very strong anti-Semitic views, which went against his entire idea of universal tolerance. He was nevertheless accepted as a hero by the people who saw him as portraying the best of the mood of the times.

His ideas were obscure and radical during the Enlightenment.. As people became more educated and literate, it was easier for them to grasp new concepts of living, and thinkers like Voltaire were more easily accepted. The problems that existed in the sixteenth century are still evident in the twentieth century. Intolerance has grown stronger, and apartheid, government enforced racism is acceptable. When Voltaire wrote about his opinions, the publishings were only available to a select group of individuals. Only the educated heard about him, and they were the minority.

He was the first to have ideas like he did, and it was difficult to know what to think of him Four centuries later, information is easily accessible, and even the illiterate can listen to the radio, or watch a television. When Nelson Mandela launched his crusade against apartheid, not only were the South Africans aware of it, they knew enough to participate and encourage it. Other countries were aware of what was going on, and Voltaire could never have had that opportunity. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and the day he was released, it was on every major television network, as well, it was publicized in worldwide newspapers.

Mandela lives in a time that opinions do not need to be disguised in prose or poem. Today the majority of South Africans – black and white – recognize that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our own decisive mass action in order to build peace and security. The mass campaigns of defiance and other actions of our organizations can only culminate in the establishment of democracy . . There must be an end to white monopoly of political power and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of partheid are addressed and our society throughout democratized.

Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts. It is only through disciplined mass ction that our victory can be assured.

We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too . . . Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage . . . is the only way to peace and harmony. 18 Nelson Mandela has the freedom to say his opinions to the masses, to a great extent. Voltaire was never able to connect with masses, and that is the main catalyst for the fact that he was jailed and ignored.

Mandela reflects the accomplishments made in four centuries. While man still does not have absolute free speech, he is not so suppressed that he must hide his feelings by literary means. Despite the belief that fighting with violence is effective, civil disobedience has been tried throughout history and been successful. Fighting violence with violence leaves no oppertunity for peace to work. By refusing to fight back violently, Martin Luther King Jr. took a race of people, taught them the value of their voice, and they earned the right to vote.

Henry David Thoreau presented his doctrine that no man should cooperate with laws that are unjust, but, he must be willing to accept the punishment society sets for breaking those laws, and hundreds of years later, people are still inspired by his words. Mohandas K. Gandhi lead an entire country to its freedom, using only his morals and faith to guide him, as well as those who followed him, proving that one man can make a difference. Civil disobedience is the single tool that any person can use to fight for what they want, and they will be heard. After centuries of questioning it, it appears that the pen truly is mightier than the sword.

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