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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The phrase “civil disobedience” now used so widely
for all cases of individual or group dissent from civil
law appeared on the scene quite late. Henry David
Thoreau is usually credited with coining the term,
though it is not known for certain that he did or why
he changed the title of his essay, later to become world
famous, from “Resistance to Civil Government” to
“Civil Disobedience.”

The concept of civil disobedience, as distinct from
the phrase, has a long and notable history, appearing
already as the Antigone theme in Greek drama and
in the antiwar motif of Lysistrata, where the women,
in addition to deserting their men, seize the Acropolis
and the Treasury of Athens. The conflict between civil
law and conscience was sharply featured when the Jews
passively resisted the introduction of icons into Jerusa-
lem by Pilate, procurator of Judaea, and by Jesus in


his dramatic purification of the temple, when he over-
turned the tables of the money changers and the seats
of those who legally sold pigeons. The conflict has been
highlighted in the history of English-speaking countries
many times, though rarely more forcefully than when
Milton refused to obey the licensing and censorship
laws of seventeenth-century England and when the
Abolitionists attacked the institution of slavery in
nineteenth-century America. The most widely known
cases of the conflict in the twentieth century are
Gandhi's campaigns against colonial rule in South
Africa and India, passive resistance campaigns against
Nazi occupation governments during World War II,
and the civil rights campaign against segregation in
the United States starting in 1954. Civil disobedience
attitudes and techniques also spread into attacks against
the Vietnam War, draft laws, poverty, and the authori-
tarian structure of colleges and universities in the

As the examples of it make clear, the concept of
civil disobedience is extremely rich and diverse, not
at all precise and specific—the way it is with most
terms or ideas outside of a formal system. Yet much
can be done to analyze and clarify the concept, though
not formally define it, if attention is paid to recurring
themes in the rich context of historical examples. An
appreciation of these themes, without fixation on any
one case, will, hopefully, make it possible to avoid the
emotionally persuasive definitions of what civil disobe-
dience “really” is, so popular at times as different
groups try to put the phrase to work for them.

The concept of civil disobedience presupposes, first
of all, some formal structure of law, enforced by estab-
lished governmental authorities, from which an indi-
vidual cannot dissociate himself except by change of
citizenship. (Disobedience in the contexts of family,
clan, church, lodge, or business does not count as civil
disobedience.) It is not necessary, however, that an
individual ultimately accept the governmental frame-
work in which he acts disobediently; he may be ac-
cepting it only conditionally at a given time as a nec-
essary but temporary fact of life or as a step in the
direction toward the framework he ultimately accepts.
To insist on the ultimate acceptance of the framework
in which the act occurs, as some authors do, has the
absurd consequence of denying that Thoreau, Tolstoi,
and Gandhi engaged in acts of civil disobedience, since
Thoreau and Tolstoi were anarchists and Gandhi was
protesting colonial rule.

Civil disobedience, then, consists in publicly an-
nounced defiance of specific laws, policies, or com-
mands of that formal structure which an individual or
group believes to be unjust and/or unconstitutional.
The defiance may also take the form of disobedience
of just laws if such disobedience appears to be an
effective way to focus public attention on unjust laws.
The defiance must be publicly announced, since the
point of it is to bring the unjust and/or unconstitutional
laws, policies, or commands to the attention of the
public, for the purpose either of stirring its conscience
or of frightening it into helping repeal the laws, change
the policies, or mitigate the commands; or to get the
attention of the courts so that their constitutionality
can be judged. The defiance may take the form of doing
what is prohibited (say, burning a draft card) or of
failing to do what is required (say, refusing to report
for induction). The defiance, moreover, must be a pre-
meditated act, understood to be illegal by the perpe-
trator, and understood to carry prescribed penalties.
Willingness to accept such penalties is a crucial part
of that sort of civil disobedience which hopes to stir
the public conscience, while eagerness to escape pun-
ishment is perfectly compatible with that sort of civil
disobedience which aims to pressure and frighten the
public. The defiance, finally, may be either nonviolent
or violent and still count as civil disobedience. To
restrict the concept of civil disobedience to nonviolent
acts, as some authors do, ignores the difficulty of finding
a precise dividing line between “nonviolence” and
“violence” (Is rigidly blocking a doorway nonviolent?)
as well as the facts of usage. Defiant acts of a violent
sort, if they are focused, at least for the present, on
specific laws, policies, or commands (and hence are
short of unrestricted defiance of the whole government)
and meet the above criteria, are in fact called acts of
civil disobedience just as much as those which meet
the same criteria but are nonviolent.


Assuming that the notion of civil disobedience is
reasonably clear, the question immediately arises why
anyone should be civilly disobedient. Is it ever legiti-
mate? If so, under what conditions? The two most
important justifications of civil disobedience tradi-
tionally have been the Higher Law doctrine and some
version of Natural or Human Rights.

1. The Higher Law doctrine asserts that God's law
takes precedence over civil law whenever it can be
shown that the two come into conflict. Man is ordinar-
ily duty bound to obey the civil law and magistrates
since the benefits of orderly government are large
indeed; on the other hand, man cannot, out of higher
duty, obey the civil law or magistrates if they command
him to break the word of God.

While the Higher Law doctrine was never wholly
absent from thought and practice during most of the
career of Western civilization, it was usually sporadic
and individual in nature. For the most part, people


were happy to accept the Higher Law concept without
drawing its painful corollary of civil disobedience. The
most sustained development of the concept and its most
thorough application was the work of those nine-
teenth-century American abolitionists who owed their
inspiration either to transcendentalism or to the pietis-
tic, free-will Trinitarianism that came to dominate
many branches of Protestantism early in the century.

According to the transcendentalists, the Law of God
says that men are morally equal, while certain aspects
of civil law in the United States either deny this or
prevent its recognition. In view of this conflict, it
becomes the duty of an honest man to follow God's
law and defy Fugitive Slave Laws and other aspects
of the civil law (the extent of violation depending upon
whether or not one countenances violence, and to what
extent). Not to do so is to be a “practical atheist”—that
is, one who says he believes in God but does not follow
his commands.

The transcendentalists, while united on the principle
of Higher Law, certainly did not agree on how far to
extend the commitment to civil disobedience. Emerson
was reluctant to extend it very far because he felt that
the only permanent solution to the evils of the world
is a regeneration of men's souls. While he spoke sharply
against slavery, it remained for transcendentalists like
Theodore Parker and George William Curtis to be
civilly disobedient and to answer effectively the critics
of this activist policy.

The critic is wrong, Parker and Curtis said, in think-
ing that civil disobedience will lead to chaos or under-
mine the benefits of orderly government. Proponents
of the Higher Law recognize the importance of stabil-
ity and so are willing to obey many questionable laws;
they claim only that some laws and policies are so
thoroughly immoral that they must be publicly dis-
obeyed as well as denounced else one renounces his
own humanity. Moreover, the man of principle who
will not obey a vicious law is that sort of person who
can be counted upon as the strongest upholder of law
in general since he will not break laws for selfish rea-
sons or obey the law only when the constable is watch-
ing. Finally, a person who would obey any law just
because it is a law is utterly immoral, for the vilest
crimes are often committed on the excuse of following
orders of a legally constituted superior. If the colonials
had obeyed the law, they would never have thrown
the tea into Boston Harbor and there would not have
been a United States of America.

Henry David Thoreau is, no doubt, the most famous
advocate of civil disobedience among the transcenden-
talists. It is well known that he refused to pay his poll
tax by way of protest against the Mexican War and
the expansion of slavery, and that he was turned out
of jail when friends paid it in his stead. The protest
itself accomplished nothing, but for many people his
act became highly significant as a symbol of passive
resistance to injustice. There is little doubt that it can
be so construed and that Thoreau so intended it. But
the truly radical nature of his political beliefs is by
no means adequately suggested by this standard inter-
pretation, for Thoreau was essentially an idealistic
anarchist who believed that all civil law that touched
moral matters was an unacceptable encroachment on
the rights of an individual. A majority vote, he thought,
does not establish what is true or right. In the ideal
state all individuals would act according to their own
insights into Universal Truth and there would thus be
no need of civil government at all, except for the
exercise of practical affairs like garbage collection,
road building, and other matters where decisions of
conscience are not involved. Thoreau stated his an-
archism succinctly by saying that if that government
is best which governs least, then that government is
absolutely best which does not govern at all.

The majority of antislavery activists owed their
Higher Law inspiration to the pietistic, free-will Trini-
tarianism that flourished in the first half of the nine-
teenth century as a protest against both the theological
and social conservatism of Calvinism. Although there
were many differences, this “New Light” theology
shared with the transcendentalists the notion of indi-
vidual inner light that provides direct communication
with God. When the law of God so obtained is violated
by civil law, as in the case of slavery, the duty of the
Christian is to be disobedient. The most interesting of
this group, because they were the most radical and
effective, were the Oberlinities, both the College and
community, led by Asa Mahan, Charles Finney, John
Keep, James H. Fairchild, and others. They ran a
fabulously successful Underground Railway and par-
ticipated in the famous Wellington Rescue Case that
provided much important propaganda for the young
Republican Party.

While the Oberlinites were thoroughly radical, they
completely rejected the views of William Lloyd Garri-
son. Garrison was radical, they felt, in a completely
useless way. He rejected both the Christian Church
and the United States Constitution because they pro-
vided a framework that tolerated slavery. He believed
that the only thing to do was for the North to secede
and start over. The Oberlinites felt that this plan might
help the consciences of some Northerners but would
not help the slaves in the slightest. It was better, they
felt, to make the Church militant (they helped organize
the American Missionary Association); to work through
the courts (they effectively nullified the Ohio Anti-
Slave Law); to help create new political channels (they


worked for the Free-Soil and Republican Parties); and,
finally, to be civilly disobedient in an effective fashion
(they never lost a slave to federal authorities).

2. The notions of “natural rights” and “human
rights” are by no means identical since the former
usually involves an absolutistic and rationalistic outlook
in moral philosophy and is usually based on a theolog-
ical foundation such as “God-given rights,” while the
latter does not usually entail such conceptions but
leaves open the possibility, at least, of relativistic,
voluntaristic, and humanistic foundations for man's
basic rights. The concept of human rights is the one
usually used these days, not simply because ours is a
more voluntaristic and humanistic era but because this
concept includes many social and economic freedoms
which seem important to our age, along with the more
traditional concept of freedom as “freedom from”
various restraints. For example, the Universal Declara-
tion of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations
in 1948, recognizes, among others, the rights to life,
liberty, personal security, and equal protection of the
law; freedom from slavery and degrading punishment;
freedom of thought, conscience, speech, religion, and
peaceful assembly; and the right to an education,
choice of one's own employment, favorable working
conditions, and protection against unemployment.

The concepts of natural and human rights, with all
their differences, still have a core of common meaning,
namely, that there are certain rights which belong to
a man independent of his position in a civil society.
Since society does not bestow these rights, it cannot
justifiably take them away. This is the point in saying
that such rights are inalienable. The function of society,
far from interfering with these rights, is to sustain and
protect them and to adjudicate conflicts that arise in
the common pursuit of these rights. If a civil govern-
ment subverts these rights in a wholesale fashion, it
is not fulfilling its proper role and hence the people
are justified in overthrowing that spurious government
(with the least violence possible) and erecting a legiti-
mate one in its place. It follows as a corollary of this
general principle that if a government which on the
whole respects its proper role nevertheless infringes
or denies some specific rights, either to a majority or
minority of people, then they have the right to civilly
disobey the offending laws, policies, or commands
(either nonviolently or violently, depending upon fur-
ther arguments).

The notion of natural or human rights, it should be
noted, strongly supports Thoreau's contention that a
majority vote cannot decide what is right or wrong,
and helps put the concept of democracy in its proper
perspective. The notion of Popular Sovereignty es-
poused by Stephen Douglas in pre-Civil War days was
supposedly the democratic answer to the problem of
slavery in the territories. Let the settlers in each terri-
tory vote on whether or not to have slaves! This con-
cept of democracy, of course, subverts the whole notion
of human rights and is the rule of the majority to which
Thoreau so strongly objected. The democratic princi-
ple envisioned by most of the architects of the Bill
of Rights of the United States Constitution and of the
Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations
is that the rule of the majority is the best way known
to man of adjudicating the conflicts which inevitably
arise in the common pursuit of their human rights by
millions of people. It would have been shocking indeed
to these people to have envisioned the democratic
principle as deciding who is going to be allowed to
have human rights.

The concept of human rights provides, no doubt,
the most prominent justification of civil disobedience
in the humanistically oriented modern world, and yet
prudential considerations are sometimes offered by
believers in the concept to soften the commitment to
civil disobedience. These prudential considerations
have always been with us (Bay [1968], p. 476). Thomas
Hobbes represented the extreme position, of accepting
the concept of natural rights and yet, out of fear of
anarchy, rejecting not only civil disobedience but even
dissent. David Hume provided a teleological, utilitarian
approach to the relative limits of obedience and diso-
bedience to civil magistrates and adopted “with con-
siderable vehemence” a libertarian position in his
Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). Later, out of fear
of anarchy again, he recommended “exact obedience”
to the law of the land and the authority of its adminis-
trators. Jeremy Bentham saw no more point in these
sweeping generalizations and anxieties about civil dis-
obedience and anarchy than he did about generaliza-
tions in any other part of moral philosophy. On his
view, each situation and political context should be
carefully studied in its own right and the likely conse-
quences predicted. If the prediction is for fewer overall
mischievous consequences by disobedience than by
submission, then it is the duty, not simply the right,
of the conscientious citizen to resist the government.

To Bentham's counsel, the modern proponent of
human rights who takes civil disobedience seriously
adds that the cry of anarchy and civil disintegration
is all too often unintentionally and at times even inten-
tionally the mask of vested interests. There are, to be
sure, genuine dangers in civil disobedience, well un-
derstood by its intelligent agents, but the dangers are
to be weighed by a believer in human rights and not
used as a rationalization for doing nothing when he
has the security and someone else suffers the infringe-
ment of human rights. The point is simply this: if a


person is so concerned about civil stability that he
cannot conceive any conditions that would justify dis-
obedience, then he really has abandoned any tenable
concept of human rights.


Assuming that at least in some cases civil disobe-
dience is justified, the question of what form it should
take immediately arises. Should it always be nonviolent
in nature or is the use of violence ever justified? And
if violence is ever justified, what limits must be set upon
it? Efforts to answer these questions form a large bloc
of the literature on civil disobedience.

The defense of nonviolence has taken two radically
different forms, one prudential in nature, the other a
matter of principle. The prudential argument holds
that if government forces are so strong and oppressive
that they would retaliate tenfold against any violence,
then they should be opposed only nonviolently or by
“passive resistance.” If the situation changes, if the
strength of the oppressive government declines, then
it may be violently resisted. There can be little doubt
that this was the attitude of the valiant civilians in
Norway and Denmark during the Nazi occupation
whose campaigns of resistance are so vividly described
in (and were influenced by) John Steinbeck's The Moon
is Down.
It was a grave offense to have a copy of this
book in one's possession in any Nazi occupied country.

The most important defenders of nonviolence as a
matter of principle were Leo Tolstoi, Mohandas
Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The principle
usually invoked to justify nonviolence was the religious
and moral belief that love is necessarily good and hence
that violence by its very nature is evil; that only love
of others brings happiness and the realization of a
moral self, while anger and violence debase the char-
acter of the agent as well as wounding and killing
others. There was a seriatim influence among Tolstoi,
Gandhi, and King, though it must not be assumed that
their concepts and campaigns of disobedience were
identical simply because they agreed on these princi-
ples of nonviolence.

According to Tolstoi, man's conscience reveals to
him a God that is the supreme Good, not a personal
God but a God “within us.” Jesus was absolutely right
in saying, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” not, however,
because he was the Son of God but because this is what
is dictated by the conscience of man. Moreover, the
goal of man is to achieve happiness and this can only
be accomplished by getting rid of the greed and lust
that continually breed trouble among men and by
putting love in their place. Love precludes violence,
which is wrong in every form, including the forms
inherent in every form of government. The true Chris
tian must refuse jury duty, conscription, and any state
work, and he must likewise refuse to participate in any
violent efforts to overthrow the state. Property, Tolstoi
believed, is the private usurpation of what belongs to
all men and is the source of most greedy activity and
hence the root of violence. Tolstoi, in short, was a
socialistic anarchist, though he never called himself an
anarchist since anarchists frequently justify violence.

Gandhi called his own concept of disobedience the
doctrine of Satyagraha, or “truth force.” To him the
concept of passive resistance came to seem inadequate
to capture the full scope of nonviolence practiced as
a matter of principle. One must not only resist passively
the injustice of government but do so without feelings
of animosity or hatred. Complete commitment to the
love of fellow men is necessary not only as intrinsically
right but as providing that “truth force” which is
crucial to the success of civil disobedience. The adjec-
tive “civil” in the phrase “civil disobedience” meant
for Gandhi peaceful, courteous, “civilized” resistance,
and it is for this reason that some scholars have insisted
that nonviolence is part of the very meaning of “civil
disobedience.” Admiration for Gandhi's views and
campaigns, however, is not a good reason for making
these views definitive of a network of views only more
or less closely related. Such admiration is also not a
good reason for overlooking the historically relevant
use of the adjective “civil” in speaking of the civil
government or the civil magistrate simply to distin-
guish them from ecclesiastical, military, and other
authorities. Thoreau in the earlier title of his essay,
“Resistance to Civil Government,” surely did not wish
to imply that the American government was distinctive
in its courteousness.

Gandhi's formulation of civil disobedience was, in
part, much like that of the Oberlin abolitionists. The
lawbreaker should openly and quietly disobey unjust
laws and suffer the consequences of such disobedience
with dignity. However, Gandhi also felt it was legiti-
mate to dissent from unjust policies and commands of
a government by disobeying laws which were not
themselves unjust provided that breaking these just
laws did not itself violate principles of conscience. This
addition to the Oberlin formula suggests that while the
Oberlin community accepted the governmental
framework in which it operated, though critically,
Gandhi ultimately rejected the framework itself. And
this suggestion, of course, is true in fact, for Gandhi
was ultimately protesting the illegitimacy of colonial
rule and not simply the injustice of certain laws within
the English colonial system.

Martin Luther King, Jr. interpreted the Christian
message as one of love and compassion and hence
accepted the doctrine of nonviolence as a matter of


religious principle. He was also much influenced by
Gandhi's techniques of passive resistance, which he
incorporated whenever possible into the civil rights
movements, and by Gandhi's statement of the principle
of civil disobedience. Like Gandhi he believed that
unjust laws should be disobeyed quietly and the conse-
quences suffered with dignity when they cannot hon-
orably be avoided. He carefully defined the nature of
the unjust laws against which Negroes were dissenting
as the laws which a minority are forced to observe
but which are not binding on the majority. However,
in later years, after much civil rights legislation had
been passed but either not enforced at all or only partly
so, he emphasized that the root of racial injustice lay
in a double standard of law enforcement—in short, in
the unjust policies and commands of civil authorities
rather than in unjust laws (King [1967], p. 82).

Many arguments have been offered against the view
that nonviolent civil disobedience is always right in
principle and that acts of civil disobedience therefore
must always be peaceful (which is the common de-
nominator in the thought of Tolstoi, Gandhi, and King).
It should be borne in mind, of course, that arguments
which claim to show that violence is not in principle
wrong are not arguments to show that violence is
always right or that any certain degree of violence is
right but no other. When violence is justified and to
what extent, are further questions that need to be
answered by further arguments. Indeed, as we have
seen, it is possible to believe that violence is not in
principle wrong and still believe on prudential grounds
that violence is not ever justified. The arguments
against nonviolence-in-principle are too numerous to
examine in detail here, but the general strategies in-
volved are few and clear. Some people reject the
pacifistic interpretation of Christianity and certain
other world religions, while others reject entirely a
religious viewpoint from which any moral position,
pacifistic or otherwise, can be deduced. Still others
reject the formalistic view of moral philosophy which
gives rise to an absolute commitment to nonviolence.
Others point out that a utilitarian justification of non-
violence is useless, since it would never yield the abso-
lute quality necessary to the pacifist commitment. (It
is also pointed out that unfortunately some of the most
eminent proponents of nonviolence mix together,
unwittingly, incompatible formalistic and utilitarian
justifications.) Moreover, there are difficulties with an
absolute commitment to love, since it implies an abso-
lute commitment to forgiveness, as well as to nonvio-
lence, which conflicts with that concept of justice
which entails the need for punishment. Moreover, there
are various crucial roles that anger and other emotions
condemned by a nonviolence doctrine play in the
psychological health of individuals and communities.

Finally, the argument is advanced that the absolute
view of nonviolence is based on a mistaken view of
man's present nature and future possibilities. The ma-
jority of men simply are not moral in nature and are
incapable of responding to the call to conscience
sounded by the advocates of nonviolent civil disobe-
dience. Psychiatrists assure us that some people are
incapable of the moral point of view because the
affective tone of their emotional life is so dulled that
they are incapable of fellow-feeling. Experience assures
us also that many more people simply reject the moral
point of view as a piece of outright foolishness; they
are selfish as a matter of self-evident principle. Still
others are selfish unwittingly, never having given any
matter of principle a moment's thought. Certainly
nonviolent civil disobedience is just so much chaff in
the wind to all these people—and always will be. If
anything will work it will be the use of pressure tactics.
To be sure, pressure tactics are also irrelevant to those
of seriously dulled emotions, but such tactics do have
desirable effects on those who are selfish-on-principle
or thoughtlessly selfish if they are reasonably enlight-
ened. Such tactics may not convert these people, of
course, but they will increasingly help justice be done
as these people become convinced that their own wel-
fare depends on it; and, hopefully, what they are at
first pressured to do out of enlightened selfishness they
will gradually out of habit come to regard as moral.


Former Justice Abe Fortas offered a new justification
of nonviolent dissent which does not view violence as
necessarily wrong in all societies but as unnecessary
in a free society like that in the United States of
America. There is no need for disruption and destruc-
tive violence, he says, when there are constitutional
and rational means of dissent in this society unparal-
leled in previous history. Universal suffrage allows the
majority of people to express their dissent by voting
out of office those officials whose policies and com-
mands are objectionable. Moreover, individuals and
groups are guaranteed the right to bring pressure to
bear on their government by writing, speaking, orga-
nizing, picketing, and demonstrating, provided only
that laws governing public safety, etc., are obeyed.
They may also challenge unjust laws through the
courts, claiming that the laws are unconstitutional as
well as unjust. And when they sue the state or its
officials, they are equals with the state in court and
have the protection of elaborate procedural rights. This
is possible because the courts are totally independent
of the executive and legislative branches of govern-
ment. This path of legal dissent was the one taken by


the Negroes in their famous dissent over school segre-
gation in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the
Court ruled that state-maintained segregation of public
schools was unconstitutional.

The nature of civil disobedience endorsed by Fortas
is wholly procedural, and never violent, and always
directed against specific laws. An unjust law which is
judged to be unconstitutional is disobeyed so that a
court test can be made. If the decision of the Court
bears out the judgment of the dissenter he is justified
and exonerated, but if the decision goes against him,
he must accept the penalty of disobeying that law with
dignity, the mark of his respect for the overall system
in which he is operating. Furthermore, it is crucial that
in disobeying a law which he judges to be unconstitu-
tional the dissenter not violate laws which are clearly
valid as a way of publicizing a protest and exerting
pressure on the public.

A good example of this sort of admissible civil diso-
bedience, Fortas thinks, is the work of Martin Luther
King, Jr., who pledged that Negroes would disobey
“unjust laws”—defined as laws that only a minority
are compelled to obey—openly and peacefully, and
that they would accept whatever penalties might re-
sult. “This is civil disobedience in a great tradition.
It is peaceful, nonviolent disobedience of laws which
are themselves unjust and which the protester chal-
lenges as invalid and unconstitutional” (Fortas [1968],
p. 34). It is part of the valid framework of dissent and
disobedience provided by the Constitution and consti-
tutes a workable alternative to violence. Fortas con-
cludes that “the experience of these past few years
shows, more vividly than any other episode in our
history, how effective these alternatives are.” It has
been “through their use—and not through the sporadic
incidents of violence—that we have effected the cur-
rent social revolution...” (p. 64).

This view of dissent and disobedience has many
merits and is worthy of the deepest respect. One only
wishes that it were the whole story, but, alas, it does
not seem to be so. One writer has found as many as
“nine fallacies” in Fortas' view (Zinn [1968], passim).
There is, unfortunately, grave doubt that the sort of
social revolution that Justice Fortas has in mind has
in fact taken place, even though a legal one certainly
has. A vast majority of school-age Negroes still go to
segregated schools in the South in spite of the 1954
Supreme Court ruling, or attend de facto segregated
and/or inferior schools in the North. Poverty funds
have been frequently used for political purposes or,
in any case, for something someone else thought would
be good for the black population. Title VI of the 1964
Civil Rights Act, which allows federal withdrawal of
funds in cases of discrimination, has been ignored in
many cases of unequal treatment such as segregated
hospital facilities and used only sparingly in regard to
schools. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act only a
pitifully small number of federal registrars have been
sent to the South. And, most crucially of all, due to
our computer revolution and the declining need for
unskilled and semi-skilled workers, the employment
situation of the Negro, in spite of feeble efforts to aid
him, is worse than it was ten years ago.

Instead of a social revolution, one writer sees “little
more than federally approved tokenism” and “a con-
tinuation of paper promises and ancient inequities”
(Duberman [1968], p. 38). And Martin Luther King,
Jr. in his later work sadly concluded that “there is a
tragic gulf between civil rights laws passed and civil
rights laws implemented.” There is “a double standard
in the enforcement of law and a double standard in
the respect for particular laws” (King [1967], p. 82).
King still offered universal love and nonviolence as the
only answer to the new difficulties, but many black
men found the old answer utterly irrelevant given these
new revelations. The history of S.N.C.C. from “sit-ins”
to militancy is instructive on this point. For better or
for worse, black militants of all varieties marched in,
and civil disobedience using various types and degrees
of pressure is now very much part of the scene. Some
have felt it necessary to go beyond civil disobedience
to terrorism.

But it is not only in the civil rights area that a feeling
of no progress and double-dealing has led to the fall
of the “great tradition” in civil disobedience. In pro-
tests against the Vietnam War, the draft laws, poverty,
and the authoritarian structure of colleges and
universities, the same pattern of increasing militancy
is exhibited. The common theme in the campaigns of
the black man, the young man, and the poor man is
that they want more participation in the decisions
which are always being made for them by someone
else. They want more “participatory democracy” be-
cause they feel that their “representatives” and “public
servants” have produced sham progress and usually
apply double standards. They ask pointedly: Are not
those who refuse to implement laws just as civilly
disobedient as those who disobey laws, with the crucial
exception that there are severe penalties for the one
but none at all for the other? It is not the American
system and not the American judiciary that they are
rejecting or have lost faith in, many militants say, but
rather it is those who have been making their political,
economic, and social decisions for them in whom they
have lost confidence and now completely reject.

Rejection and alienation are frightening symptoms
in the body politic as well as in the individual. Some-
times they are the result of deep understanding, other
times of misunderstanding or ignorance; sometimes
they are the result of deep injury, other times of fancied


grievances; sometimes they are the result of righteous
anger, other times of blind and selfish rage. It is most
crucial at this point in history to distinguish more
carefully than in the past these different origins and
types of alienation so that they can be differentially
and more effectively responded to than heretofore. No
doubt, the wisest first move would be to take the
clear-cut, deep grievances seriously and listen to what
the oppressed themselves have to say. Not to do so
is to run a grave risk of producing further “uncivil”


Consult the standard editions of the works of Sophocles,
Euripides, Aristophanes, Hobbes, Milton, Hume, Bentham,
Garrison, Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoi, and Gandhi. This
bibliography contains the less well-known historical figures
mentioned in the text, anthologies, and contemporary arti-
cles and books where further bibliographical detail is to
be found.

Christian Bay, “Civil Disobedience,” Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences,
ed. David L. Sills, 17 vols. (New York, 1968),
2, 473-87. Hugo Bedau, ed., Civil Disobedience: Theory and
(New York, 1969). Edward Cary, George William
(Boston, 1894). Henry Steele Commager, Theodore
Parker: Yankee Crusader
(Boston, 1947; reprint 1960). G. W.
Curtis, Orations and Addresses, Vol. I (New York, 1894).
Martin Duberman, “Black Power in America,” Partisan
35 (1968), 34-48. James H. Fairchild, Moral Science,
revised ed. (New York, 1892), pp. 172-81. R. S. Fletcher,
A History of Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1943), I, 207-426.
Abe Fortas, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience
(New York, 1968). Walter Harding, “Did Thoreau Invent
the Term 'Civil Disobedience,'” Thoreau Society Bulletin,
No. 103 (1968), 8; idem, The Variorum Civil Disobedience,
annotated and with an introduction (New York, 1967).
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos
or Community?
(New York, 1967). Louis E. Lomax, The
Negro Revolt
(New York, 1962; 1963). Staughton Lynd,
Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (New York,
1968); idem, Nonviolence in America: A Documentary His-
(Indianapolis, 1966). E. H. Madden, Civil Disobedience
and Moral Law in Nineteenth Century American Philosophy

(Seattle, 1968). Asa Mahan, Series of articles on “Reform,”
Oberlin Evangelist (1844). Theodore Parker, Speeches,
Addresses and Occasional Sermons,
3 vols. (Boston, 1852);
idem, Additional Speeches, Addresses and Occasional Ser-
2 vols. (Boston, 1855). Mulford Q. Sibley, ed., The
Quiet Battle: Writings on the Theory and Practice of Non-
violent Resistance
(Garden City, N.Y., 1963). Charles E.
Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York, 1964).
Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies
on Law and Order
(New York, 1968).


[See also Anarchism; Constitutionalism; Democracy; Free
Will; God; Individualism; Peace; Protest Movements;