In many instances through history, government has imposed injustices under the pretext of serving justly. In such instances, a citizen under that government must choose between legislation and conscience. From this conflict stems the concept of civil disobedience, also termed nonviolent resistance, civil resistance, and peaceful rebellion.
In their written work, resistance leaders Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., explored the political assumptions, injustices and appropriate responses, and consequences related to civil disobedience.
Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, though quite different from one another, faced social and political challenges fundamentally similar:
- Thoreau, a 19th century Massachusetts writer, lived in a nation divided on the issue of slavery.
- Gandhi, a man of the merchant caste, grew up in an India enslaved to the British empire and blinded by the caste system of individual worth.
- King, the son of a preacher, lived in a time when white supremacy and discrimination from slave days still tore at American society.
Defining the role of government
The struggles these men fought arose in part because of government. Government, according to Thoreau, “is best [when it] governs not at all” (3). However, recognizing as Thomas Paine did the necessary evil of the institution, he identifies its theoretical purpose: the execution of the will of the people.
Nevertheless, oftentimes government acts before the people can raise their voice and executes the will of the majority in control rather than the will of the whole. A good government commands a citizen’s respect; a bad, defiance, as Thoreau practiced in his resistance to paying poll taxes and outspokenness against slavery and the Mexican-American War.
While neither Gandhi nor King explicitly named the role of government, their condemnatory discussion of its contemporary position implies their thoughts. Gandhi, who delivered his “Defending Nonviolent Resistance” speech during his trial for civil disobedience, touched on this when he challenged the judge to consider whether the law he administered served for the good of the people (1).
Gandhi viewed government as a force meant to serve the people’s good, not, as the British government acted, to serve its own whims. Early in his public life Gandhi recognized the legal inferiority of Indians, but did not regard it at the time as an injustice, but rather an “excrescence upon a system that was intrinsically and mainly good” (Gandhi 2). Only after unfulfilled promises following the Rowlatt Act did the utter deviance of the British government from its civil role impact him.
For Dr. King, the government exists to ensure the “constitutional and God given rights” of the people (3). For over three hundred years, he notes, the American government and society had deprived black people of the freedom granted to all other citizens under the Constitution.
Just as Gandhi stepped forward in defense of the Indian people against British inaction, so King led a civil rights movement for black Americans in the absence of governmental support. These three men acted in civil disobedience because their governments failed to fulfill their duties of upholding freedom and justice for all of its citizens.
Disobeying unjust laws as a moral duty
Of the three activists, Dr. King most thoroughly discusses the question of just and unjust laws, and the importance of supporting the just and defying the unjust. King, in a letter of his fellow clergymen in response to their concerns about his willingness to break laws, explained, “The answer lies in that there are two types of laws: just and unjust” (3).
Just laws, he wrote, square with the law of God and uplift humanity, while unjust laws do not. He argues that a man with conscience had the moral responsibility to transgress an unjust law (King 3).
Gandhi’s definitions of just and unjust laws follow his opinion on good and bad government. A just law works for the good of the people; an unjust, the evil. Like King, he regards the disobedience of an unjust law as the “highest duty of a citizen” (Gandhi 1).
Thoreau, of the three, most indirectly considers unjust and just laws. He offered no explanation of their difference or explicit contemplation of their opposing existences but the observation that “unjust laws exist” (Thoreau 12).
He implied a definition for these inevitably existent unjust laws when he speaks of those who serve the State. Most men of the State, he remarked, serve with their heads, rather than with moral distinctions (Thoreau 6). As such, the legislation they see to pass often bleed with moral indistinction – a scorning of moral law.
Thoreau saw, as King and Ghandhi, disobedience to immoral laws as a moral duty. In “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, he challenges abolitionists to withdraw all support from the Massachusetts government and for those opposed to slavery to rise and revolt, rather than wait complacently for the majority to agree with their stand and reverse the law through governmental act.
Accepting punishment for resistance
Thoreau, Gandhi, and King did not stop at promotion of civil disobedience to right social wrongs, but extended the movement beyond the marches and petitions. As a result, they spent time behind bars many times. In the midst of their campaigns, Gandhi and King died at the end of an assassin’s gun.
Thoreau in his refusal to pay poll tax, Gandhi in his promotion of disaffection, and King in his “unlawful” protests recognized the possibility of severe punishment, and all accepted that. Before the judge, Gandhi admitted that he knew he “played with fire” and, convinced that such was his duty, submitted to “the highest penalty” (1). Cheerfully, even!
King, also, declared that willing submission to arrest for civil disobedience served the cause just as much as the public demonstrations did. While the demonstrations send tension through society necessary for any productive negotiation, the arrest of just men stirs the conscience of society. Under his leadership, protesters broke the law “openly, lovingly, and had a willingness to accept the penalty” (King 4).
Thoreau regarded submission to penalty not only a component toward reconciliation, but a key step toward it. As his most direct, peaceful rebellion, Thoreau refuses to pay the poll tax, which would allow him to vote into office representatives who would then continue to uphold slavery.
If every just man would follow likewise, Thoreau asserted that the State, choosing between continued arrest of good and society-promoting men and the abolition of slavery, would settle for the latter (15). Through the punishment from civil disobedience, dissenters would fulfill their cause.
Government should serve the people’s good, defending their freedoms and rights, but oftentimes fallible humanity falls victim to injustice. The resultant unjust laws, supported by the very institution meant to crush them, inspire civil disobedience to draw attention to their injustice and the need for legislative reversal.
Punishment may and not unlikely will come, but the men whose consciences impels them to oppose government injustice – men like Thoreau, Gandhi, and King – knows that submission to penalty marks just another step toward winning civil rights.
This essay, originally written in 2017, has been edited and adapted for this post. It was published on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2020