Investigating the Meaning and Application of Civil Disobedience Through Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Evie Erickson

I mean to discuss the practice of civil disobedience and its significance using the thoughts and convictions of a few of its prominent leaders as a guide. Furthermore, I will discuss how it has been interpreted over time and how, I argue, it could most usefully, perhaps most necessarily be approached in the modern day. I will start by explaining its presence in American culture beginning with Henry David Thoreau, followed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. I will re-evaluate and compare those thinkers’ opinions with the Rodney King riots against police brutality in the 90s then set the two cases side by side in hopes of demonstrating the varying interpretations of civil disobedience that exist along with the implications they have for today.

Historian Brent Powell writes that “Thoreau was the first American to define and use civil disobedience as a means of protest.”[1] In the essay, “On The Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau exposed American democratic society for becoming lazy, speaking of tyrannical majorities and complacency that thrive under preconceived beliefs of freedom and liberty: “When the majority vote to abolish slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.”[2] When you live in a democracy, one can tend to believe that freedom and liberty exist already, and this ironically is quite dangerous as real struggles for liberation and minority movements can and do drown under its impulses. He calls upon the individual to resist the state and its corruption and resist falling into the complacent majority, who, by not acting, support slavery and war: “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…sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say they do not know what to do, and do nothing.”[3] He honestly, boldly argued that those who understand a state’s wrongs and still support it are the government’s most conscientious supporters and most serious obstacles to reform. He believed that dissidence, when following one’s moral obligations, is respectful and righteous.

Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the most famous figure of civil disobedience, aside from Gandhi. Much of the work he did establish certain moral guidelines for acting in the way of nonviolence for those of his generation, at the heart of the civil rights movement, and generations of the future. His philosophy was built upon the work of Gandhi, whose work was built upon Thoreau. In King’s autobiography, he says, “During my early college days, I read Throeau’s essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’ for the first time… I became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”[4] This observation accentuates and reinforces the harm of complacency, equivocating its powerful amount of influence to that of actively contributing to good. Writer Barbara B. LaBossiere provides a definition of civil disobedience that the two figures encompassed: “Gandhi and King’s actions outlined civil disobedience: nonviolent, a method of last resort, imposed by laws, moral issues must outweigh continued social complacency, directly targeted and planned, and not in violation of the moral rights of others.”[5] Each’s impact on American society in the form of civil disobedience has been vast and persistent. They urged people to question their government and the laws it upholds and showcased the various forms in which dissidence could express itself. They grew the public’s consciousness massively and encouraged the realization of a higher law of morality to be applied and practiced: that of upholding justice. Thoreau, Gandhi and King all brought to public attention their righteous concern that legalities are not equivalent to morality and justice.

Black and white image of Martin Luther King Jr. reading a book against a backdrop of bookshelves
Martin Luther King Jr. reads “The Gandhi Reader.”[6]

King proclaimed, “For the simple reason that human progress is not automatic or inevitable, it will not come about without a struggle, without pressure exerted on the status quo.”[7] For King, civil disobedience seemed to be directly targeted at addressing particular unjust laws. He respected the government and maintained respect for its institutions. This was his response to injustice, and it was this response that set a precedent, an expectation of how civil disobedience should be demonstrated, largely in America, and justifiably so as for in his time, this method was very effective – it strongly combated racism that was held in place by law. It is much of his and his followers’ work and influence that pushed out and put to end these racist policies. One can make the argument that laws in the 60s were easier to target, because there were laws that actively supported discriminatory, racist practices and one could fight against those while working within the law, Brown vs. Board, for example. Now in the 21st century, there are few laws that are clearly identifiable as discriminatory.[8] America seems to have largely interpreted King’s work as only a series of peaceful demonstrations, and then appropriated their idea of this disobedience to formulate what was considered a socially acceptable method of protest, ignoring changing circumstances, and perhaps what civil disobedience really is entirely. How does one fight injustice when injustice is not coded within laws but ingrained within the psyche of societal structures?

Police brutality against Black people, for example, cannot be targeted as an unjust law because, although it is so frequently practiced, it is outlined as illegal under the law.[9] Laws exist to enable people to maintain their rights and empower people to democratically protest, but these laws may not actually give way to improving injustices and making change: the police may not cooperate, the trial could be biased and dishonest, etc. The case of Rodney King exemplifies this. In 1991, Rodney King led the police on a chase, was stopped and eventually charged for driving under the influence. After he was stopped he was told to exit the car, to which then four Los Angeles Police Officers beat him brutally with batons for about 15 minutes. He was left severely injured and permanently disabled. The four police were charged with excessive use of force and when their trial occurred a year later, were acquitted and found not guilty. What resulted was five days of protest and riots across Los Angeles. There were large numbers injured, thousands arrested, and some killed.[10]

Black and white image of a group of police officers closing in on a protester covering his head.
Police advancing on a protester near Los Angeles City Hall during the Rodney King riots of 1992.[11]

The riots were explosive and based upon years of mistreatment, discrimination and neglect. In response, there was violence against police and businesses, and sometimes towards one another. The treatment of Rodney King was representative of a larger issue. According to the philosopher Marilyn Frye, “The root of the word ‘oppression’ is the element ‘press.’ [Some examples of its use are:] The press of the crowd, pressed into military service, to press a pair of pants…Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility.”[12]

When your community is continuously targeted, oppressed and threatened, what do you do? Clearly, no justice could be served in court. How do you protect your community when those who are supposed to serve and protect it actively harm it? How else was the world supposed to know of the injustice this minority was facing? The community largely responded by acting hostile towards police. In this case, in the eyes of the affected people, there is no sacredness in the laws of the state, so people turned to higher laws of survival and self-defense.[13] In America, it seems that one’s right to self-defense is heralded and highly regarded in all cases other than those in which the offender is a member of the state or a representation of its authority. Where else was there for the persecuted to channel this disappointment? Those who are declared to protect and serve the law continue to violate it frequently, so what does this leave modern-day activists to do?

A further inspection of Gandhi may offer an answer. He argues for civil disobedience through the means of satyagraha which translates roughly to insistence on truth- it refuses to submit to the wrong and in doing so dedicates itself to achieving the truth. Satyagraha means the exercise of the purest soul-force against all injustice, oppression and exploitation. It is a sacred right and duty of everyone born to adhere to. Its interpretation covers anything from a philosophy for daily life to mass civil disobedience – spontaneous action by the masses.[14] This leaves room to validate multiple forms of dissidence and works to understand why and how certain protests appear the way that they do. An interesting interpretation to justify and account for the many kinds of civil disobedience that occur is one from the scholar Noam Chomsky, who treats unjust acts and disobedient responses of unrest as a sort of spectrum: “What justifies an act of civil disobedience is an intolerable evil… A line must be drawn somewhere. Beyond that line lies civil disobedience… The limits of civil disobedience must be determined by the extent of the evil one confronts, and by considerations of tactical efficiency and moral principle.”[15] Chomsky legitimizes and comprehends civil disobedience’s serious nature and respects the affected group’s courage as well as their ability to make decisions rationally.

Additionally, Malcolm X did not believe there had to be a targeted law or specific cause and that unrest could be general. He believed that violence could be necessary and an individual who broke the law need not accept her punishment, as to him, accepting her punishment is admitting that she was wrong, which seems obtuse in light of greater social injustices.[16] One interpretation is to read him in opposition to King, in their differing opinions regarding the validity of the establishment and its rules and how one ought to follow them, another is to understand the context of each figure along with their complexities and in doing so acknowledge that they are fighting in a very similar revolutionary spirit. Gandhi offers his view on the use of violence, expressing in My Nonviolence that “…vengeance is any day superior to passive, effeminate and helpless submission,” but clarifying that “Forgiveness is higher still.” He used the analogy of someone’s town getting looted, and their reaction is to just sit there and let it happen instead of intervening, in the name of nonviolence. It was in response to this that he declared the previous statement.[17] The idea of a nonviolent protester being brutalized, grossly violated and mutilated then simply standing there and not fighting back is ludicrous even to Gandhi. The following is an important statement that acknowledges the opinion that violence is preferred to passive resistance, but that all disobedience should be guided by the constraints of morality, as Gandhi advises, “Disobedience without civility, discipline, discrimination, non-violence is certain destruction.”[18] These two divergences between civil disobedience, those promoting a rather reformist attitude, targeted intentionally against a specific law and a more flexible, general form allowing the movement to apply itself to rather unconventional modes of dissent, bring into question our established views of civil disobedience. Now with a different presentation of disobedience let us revisit Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau held strongly anti-establishment views due to the state’s support of slavery, the Spanish American War, and its treatment of Native Americans, among other reasons. Thoreau declared prison as the only right place for a just man in the states because regular society was so unjust that there was no place to be just within it, other than when you are opposing it as a dissident. He argued that the

“The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her—the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.”[19]

Black and white drawing of a man behind prison bars.
A sketch of Thoreau behind bars during his night in prison.[20]

There was otherwise no place in which someone who valued honor and justice could reside. Thoreau refused to pay taxes in protest of slavery, wrote anti-slavery essays and aided fugitive slaves. King wrote essays, gave speeches and led massive anti-segregation protests. They both encouraged and reminded individuals of their duty to resist injustice by breaking the law. Thoreau urged it was a sin for someone to become aware of the government’s wrongdoings and not withdraw support and combat it. Both Thoreau and King criticized what is essentially the white moderate, the majority group who agree with a movement but passively respond, as the issue is not directly affecting them. Just like Thoreau’s frustration at his Massachusettsan neighbors’ stances on slavery, it is their inaction that dismisses and suffocates the minority. They both understood that violence might result from civil disobedience but that this does not necessitate discouraging disobedience. Thoreau said “blood may be shed” and King noted that “one should gain his constitutional rights” even if its pursuit precipitates violence, but this should not keep one from protesting.[21] What King wrote in his letter from Birmingham nicely encapsulates this persistent, essential spirit of nonviolence: “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”[22]

Interpreting civil disobedience as strictly reformist or as being adhered to specific guidelines seems to portray an unrealistic picture of what the action actually is and has looked like. Viewing disobedience through this framework, as America often has, assumes that the state has always had just foundations and laws where injustices happen to occur sometimes, but none that cannot be fixed through working within this framework, respecting the laws. The Civil Rights movement, led largely by Martin Luther King Jr., for example, seems to be conventionally taught and remembered as people obtaining their rights peacefully, because it was only constitutional that they should do so, effectively stripping it of its radical nature. When investigated further, this viewpoint quickly becomes futile and one realizes that this movement was out of necessity, not out of moral righteousness. Marginalized people were being abused, tormented, oppressed in such a way that it became intolerable. Protest is an act of defiance and desperation, not an assessment or reflection of what is right or wrong. Morality is always important to be conscious of, though it should not inhibit one from practicing civil disobedience wholeheartedly and create a mindset that standardizes movements and dismisses those causes it deems unworthy.

Rodney King’s death and its subsequent protests is an example of a movement that does not fit the established framework, as the prerequisite for the events that unfolded was the very notion that the US has a system that allows for positions of power to be corrupt, break the law and perpetuate systemic racism. With this information, how could one expect the reaction to go any differently? Erin Pineda, professor and writer, argues that “We do it a serious disservice when we treat civil disobedience as if it were a matter of a list of requirements to be checked off, one by one—requirements that have universal validity, and that can tell us at a moment’s glance whether any given protest should be considered morally serious, sincere, or justified.”[23] Oppressed people are under such strained conditions that it is only normal that their response would be rather unpredictable when faced with intense injustice and trying to grapple with an understanding of how to achieve justice and morality given the context. It is not anyone’s responsibility to judge, predetermine or assess how an oppressed, brutalized group of people responds to their oppression, for that group ought to decide that for themselves.

[1] Brent Powell, “Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest,” OAH Magazine of History 9, no. 2 (1995): 26–29.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” (London: The Simple Life Press, 1903), 15.

[3] Ibid. 14.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr. and Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Grand Central Publishing, 1998) 11-12.

[5] Barbara B. LaBossiere, “When the Law Is Not One’s Own: A Case for Violent Civil Disobedience,” Public Affairs Quarterly 19, no. 4 (2005): 323.

[6] Moneta Sleet Jr, Martin Luther King Jr. with “The Gandhi Reader,” photograph, Ebony Collection, 1956.

[7] Hans Walton, The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, (Connecticut, 1971) p. 61.

[8] LaBossiere, “When the Law Is Not One’s Own,” 5.

[9] See Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

[10] Anjuli Sastry Krbechek, and Karen Grigsby Bates, “When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots,” NPR, April 26, 2017.

[11] A Katz, LAPD advance upon protestor on the south lawn of City Hall while police car burns during night one of the Rodney King Riots on April 29 1992 in Los Angeles, CA, photograph, Shutterstock, April 29, 1992.

[12] Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1983), 1.

[13] LaBossiere, “When the Law Is Not One’s Own,” 11.

[14] Ramananda Choudhurie, “Gandhian Philosophy of Satyagraha,” Satyagraha – Civil Disobedience | Articles on and by Mahatma Gandhi.

[15] Noam Chomsky, quoted in K.P. Karunakaran, “Martin Luther King and Civil Disobedience,” India International Centre Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1976): p.97.

[16] LaBossiere, “When the Law Is Not One’s Own: A Case for Violent Civil Disobedience,” 4.

[17] Mahatma Gandhi, My Nonviolence, ed. Sailesh Kumar Bandopadhyaya (India: Navajivan Publishing House, 1960), 38.

[18] Mahatma Gandhi, The Voice of Truth: The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Shriman Narayan (India: Navajivan Publishing House, 2018), 173.

[19] Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” 14-15.

[20] Nicole Vilane, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” drawing, Medium (blog), March 29, 2019.

[21] Powell, “Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest,” 3.

[22] Martin Luther King Jr, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” The American Friends Service Committee, 1963.

[23] Erin Pineda, “Civil Disobedience and Punishment: (Mis)Reading Justification and Strategy from SNCC to Snowden,” History of the Present 5, no. 1 (2015): 25.