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Copyright 2008 Heldref Publications

Teaching about Civil Disobedience: Clarifying a Recurring Theme in the Secondary Social Studies

ABSTRACT. In this article, the authors offer social studies educators a way to deepen students understanding of civil disobedience as a democratic and nonviolent means of instigating social change. The authors explore the concept of civil disobedience from a historical perspective and examine the justifications and ramifications of each historical example. In addition, they provide several examples of events that are often mistakenly categorized as civil disobedience. Through these examples, the authors develop a sound definition of the concept, while explaining its application to contemporary society. In actualizing the significance of civil disobedience in the secondary social studies classroom, the authors use five components: the historical importance of civil disobedience, the concept of civil disobedience,
J. SPENCER CLARK taught civics and world history for four years at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kansas. He recently started working on his PhD in curriculum studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. THOMAS S. VONTZ is an assistant professor and director of the Kansas State University Center for Social Studies Education. KRISTOFFER BARIKMO teaches U.S. history and civics at Notre Dame de Sion High School in Kansas City, Missouri.

the argument for civil disobedience, the argument against civil disobedience, and teaching about civil disobedience. They also incorporate civil disobedience into a lesson plan. Keywords: civil disobedience, democratic citizenship, history, social studies

peaking at his 2007 Ash Wednesday Mass in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony warned that he would instruct his priests to defy federal legislation and provide assistance to any parishioner regardless of their citizenship status. This came after the House of Representatives passed an immigration bill including a provision that requires churches and other social organizations to ask immigrants for legal documentation before providing them assistance, and penalizing those institutions that fail to comply. Cardinal Mahony justifies his call for civil disobedience by appealling to a higher power: Denying aid to a fellow human being violates a law with higher authority than Congressthe law of God (Sullivan 2007). Cardinal Mahony, like other civil disobedients, is willing to allow his diocese to be penalized to cast light on what he perceives as a grave injustice.

Cardinal Mahonys call to his clergy to disobey the law, however, is only one recent manifestation of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a recurring theme in U.S. and world history. However, most students and citizens possess little or no understanding of civil disobedience; they do not fully understand what it is, how it has been used, or its relationship to democratic citizenship. This article takes a contemporary look at civil disobedience and explores its significance in the secondary social studies curriculum. The Importance of Civil Disobedience Historically, civil disobedience has been an effective method of influencing and ameliorating unjust laws. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War and the institution of slavery. Across the globe, Mohandas Gandhi refused to accept the race laws of South Africa and then moved to India to protest and openly defy unjust laws imposed by Great Britain. Rosa Parks defied law and custom in 1955 by refusing to leave her seat on a Montgomery bus, igniting the Civil Rights movement and initiating the Montgomery bus boycott led by


Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In May 1968, the Catonsville Nine, led by the Berrigan brothers, publicly burned draft records; at their trial, Daniel Berrigan said, The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense (Berrigan 1970, 42). All of these events ignited great controversy and cast light

misunderstood by students and citizens, it is important for students to develop a fluency of its usage. Students should be able to clearly define civil disobedience, distinguish between civil disobedience and other acts of protest, explain the conditions that justify its use in a democracy, and explore the consequences and benefits that might result from its use.

As educators responsible for fostering democratic citizenship, we miss a great opportunity to teach students about the power of ordinary citizens if we do not include a study of civil disobedience.

on unjust laws and policies. Not all citizens actualize their citizenship in these ways; however, these instances exemplify the civil disobedience concept and its role in a democratic society. As educators responsible for fostering democratic citizenship, we miss a great opportunity to teach students about the power of ordinary citizens if we do not include a study of civil disobedience. After all, majorities sometimes make mistakesunjust mistakes that persist, despite repeated legal efforts to change unjust laws. When the government fails, promoting discriminatory or unjust laws or practices, it is the citizens right and responsibility to intervene and work toward dismantling that law or practice. Furthermore, when the government repeatedly fails to address an injustice, it is the citizens responsibility to promulgate the injustice. As citizen educators, it is imperative that we help students not only understand their rights but also their responsibilities and obligations in a democracy. Under certain conditions, civil disobedience can be viewed as wholly consistent with democratic principleseven an act of patriotism. Our goal should be to develop citizens who can look carefully at society, ask critical questions about issues, and use democratic means to solve public problems. As civil disobedience is not always justified in a democracy and is often

The Concept of Civil Disobedience The phrase civil disobedience carries many definitions and interpretations. Clearly, defining civil disobedience is one of the greatest challenges of teaching it effectively. However, the following definition, adapted from Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education (Quigley and Bahmueller 1991), is defensible, clear, and appropriate for the secondary social studies classroom:
Civil disobedience is a deliberate, public, conscientious, and nonviolent act that breaks a law in which the person accepts responsibility and punishment. It is an act of nonviolent protest undertaken to alleviate some injustice, usually with an appeal to some higher principle or law. (629)

To be considered an act of civil disobedience, according to this definition, one must pay particular attention to the acts characteristics. First, the citizen must disobey a law or established policy of the government. Most often the law that is being broken is considered unjust; however, occasionally civil disobedients will break a just law in the hope of bringing attention to some perceived injustice (as in the case of Cardinal Mahony). Second, the citizen would have to deliberately and publicly disobey the law. If the citizen did not publicly and deliberately disobey the law, then he or she would have acted without a civic pur-

pose and without seeking public recognition of the act. The citizen must be acting to serve the common good, not his or her own self-interest. Third, the citizen must act conscientiously, in that he or she has an honest belief that his or her actions are intended to correct a grave injustice. Fourth, the act must be nonviolent; otherwise the act would be considered another form of protest, such as rioting, which disobeys the law in a violent manner. Finally, the citizen must be willing to accept the consequences of his or her action. Thus, attempting to ameliorate unjust laws does not imply contempt for the law. It is important to note that there are at least two types of civil disobedience (Quigley and Bahmueller 1991). The first type can be labeled as individual or moral civil disobedience. Individual or moral civil disobedience is carried out by an individual citizen who openly, intentionally, and nonviolently breaks an unjust law. The second type can be labeled as organized or social civil disobedience. This involves an organized group of people openly, intentionally, nonviolently, and collectively breaking an unjust law to achieve some political objective related to the reinstatement or preservation of justice (Quigley and Bahmueller). The summation of these types of civil disobedience is exemplified by the idea that a manobligated to obey because of his membership in a larger society, obligated to disobey (sometimes) because of his membership in a smaller oneis, for all its tensions, very common in history and has often been fairly stable over long periods of time (Walzer 1970, 14). It is this obligation that has produced numerous examples of civil disobedience. Historical Examples Socrates provided one of the first documented examples of civil disobedience in Western civilization. He taught young Athenian aristocrats to be critical of the Athenian democracy, while praising the rival oligarchy of Sparta. The ruling powers of Athens were not pleased and warned Socrates to stop his teachings. The warning was of no


avail. Socrates continued his teaching and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for corrupting his students. He deliberately and openly disobeyed what he believed to be an unjust policy, while openly accepting the ultimate consequencedeath. He justifies and explains his actions in the Crito, one of the Platonic dialogues (Reeve 2002). Having accepted the benefits of society, he felt a moral obligation to be a good citizen and respect the principle of lawfulness even as he disobeyed an unjust law. Henry David Thoreau openly, publicly, and nonviolently refused to pay taxes to an American government that was at war with Mexico and supported the institution of slavery. He eloquently made his case in an essay that ironically never uses the term civil disobedience. Originally titled Resistance to Civil Government in 1849, it came to be known as Civil Disobedience (Thoreau 1969). The essay stresses the importance of respecting the right, rather than respecting the law. While Thoreaus essay is less about civil disobedience than it is about the relationship of the individual to the state, it is clear that by favoring the rights and responsibilities of the individual, Thoreau supports the importance of civil disobedience in our democratic society. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to make room for a white passenger. This was not her original act of defiance. Already reprimanded once before for not giving up her seat, Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance. She accepted this openly, allowing the world to witness the citys injustice. Many historians mark this day as the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. That single act of civil disobedience inspired thousands, in Alabama and throughout the United States and the world. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called in to organize the general boycott, bringing inspiration and increased coverage to the new movement. King also exercised civil disobedience during the Civil Rights movement. Imprisoned for a peaceful and nonvio-

lent protest in Birmingham, Alabama, his Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, is the preeminent outline and justification for civil disobedience in U.S. history (King 1993). Kings letter, employing fundamental principles of democracy, outlined a convincing justification for the use of civil disobedience to end racial injustice. King argued for civil disobedience when efforts to change unjust laws from within the system failed repeatedly. He cited historical examples of civil disobedience to justify and reinforce his cause of changing unjust and discriminatory laws in the South. King provided citizens with a framework for nonviolent civil disobedience. As outlined from his jail cell, he wrote that in any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to decide whether any injustices exist; negotiation in an attempt to right the injustice; self-purification to ready yourself for conflict; and direct action (Cohen and Fermon 1996, 624). Kings rationale and appeal to a higher law provide a clear, concise, and concrete example of the practice of civil disobedience. As a method of protest, civil disobedience is unique as a blatant and nonviolent act designed to break the law. There are several forms of protest that students may mistake for civil disobedience, such as revolutions, riots, and conscientious objections. These differ in that civil disobedience is an overt act of nonviolent defiance that is designed to promulgate the injustice of particular laws or policies. Although revolutions may rise up from demonstrations involving civil disobedience, they are violent. Riots, on the other hand, are not acts of civil disobedience as they are rooted in lawlessness, lack of respect for the law, and violence. Many also consider conscientious objection to be closely related to civil disobediencehowever, it is not. The label conscientious objector describes someone recognized by a draft board who has sincere or deeply held beliefs that make him or her object to fighting in a wartherefore no law is broken. Finally, if someone breaks the law in protest but does not accept the consequences, he or she did not practice civil

disobedience. For example, the colonists who participated in the Boston Tea Party were protesting the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament. Lacking representation in Parliament, the colonists felt the tax on tea was unfair. In protest they dumped a shipment of tea into Boston Harbor, disguising themselves as Native Americans in the hope of avoiding any blame. Therefore, the colonists did not practice civil disobedience because they did not openly accept the consequences of their actions. More recently, students at New Yorks Columbia University stormed a stage in protest during a speech made by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a group that patrols the U.S.Mexico border in an attempt to decrease illegal immigration. Campus organizations sponsored Gilchrists appearance, yet the protestors interfered with his speech, holding up banners and chanting to express their belief that his cause is racist and unjust. The taking of the stage provoked the Minuteman Project supporters to resist, and violence ensued. In the aftermath, many claimed this was an act of civil disobedience; however, the protestors infringed on Gilchrists free speech rights, their act resulted in violence, and they were not willing to accept the punishment for their acts. An Argument for Civil Disobedience in a Democracy Correcting a moral injustice is the most common justification for practicing civil disobedience. When a person has been exposed to an unjust law and all attempts to change the law through legal means have failed, the use of civil disobedience is justified. Civil disobedience is not justified as a principal means of correcting an injustice. It is only justified after attempts to work within the system have failed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. highlights several characteristics of an unjust law in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. King described an unjust law as a human law that does not conform to higher or fundamental law; a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law; any law that degrades personality; a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is


not binding on the majority; and a code that is inflicted upon a minority that the minority had no involvement in creating (King 1993). Still, the difficulty remains in attempting to define fundamental, moral, or natural law, despite the concept of natural law, or law that supersedes human law, as a fundamental component of modern democracy. Initiating social change is the first step in correcting a moral injustice. Historian Susan Neiburg Terkel (1996, 45) points out that when breaking the law is likely to bring about political change or to draw public attention to the law, there is a clear reason to use civil disobedience as a vehicle for change. Civil disobedience is used to put the issue on trial in the court of public opinion and compel the government, most often the courts, to rule on a particular issue, which was the intent of Homer Plessy, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If a citizen can make a compelling argument that the government through its laws or actions is breaking a moral or fundamental law and repeated attempts to correct the injustice through legal means have failed, then the practice of civil disobedience is justified. These arguments are often made with reference to ones responsibilities as a citizen, which is not only a compelling justification for the practice of civil disobedience, but also a strong argument for its role in the secondary social studies curriculum. The practice of civil disobedience is one of the ways average citizens may check the will of the majority in a democratic government. Citizens often feel helpless and resign themselves to the will of the majority, commonly perceiving the Supreme Court as the sole check on unjust laws established by the majority and the only interpreter of the Constitution. While the Supreme Court is responsible for interpreting the Constitution, it is a responsibility shared with other branches of government and with citizens. Informed, active, and responsible citizens are often the most powerful forces in a democracy, maintaining vigilance in the perpetuation of a just government to which they have bestowed their consent.

An Argument against Civil Disobedience Just as there are many endorsements of civil disobedience, there are many objections to its use in a democratic society. Carl Cohen (1971) presents several common objections against the practice of civil disobedience in a lawful and democratic society. The first and possibly most frequent objection is that civil disobedience implies contempt for the law and undermines the rule of law (Cohen 1971, 131). Critics argue that intentionally breaking a law establishes a dangerous precedent that may encourage other lawless acts. Breaking the lawunder any circumstancesis not justified in a society that respects the rule of law. The rule of law is a foundational concept of democracya principle so fundamental that no argument can justify its suspension. In opposition, however, some view intentionally breaking an unjust law and accepting the consequences as showing an uncompromising respect for the rule of law. Mohandas Gandhi held this view: Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good (qtd. in Terkel 1996, 95). In a further objection Cohen (1971) points out that . . . civil disobedience supposes the primacy of selfish interests (134). This argument asserts that no act of civil disobedience can be morally justified because its very nature is immoral (i.e., breaking the law is inherently immoral) and it supposes the superiority of the individual as opposed to social interests. Perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. counters this objection best when he says,
. . . I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly in Atlanta and not be concerned with what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. . . . Whatever affects one indirectly, affects all directly. (qtd. in Cohen and Fermon 1996, 624)

One final objection dwells in the discomfort that . . . civil disobedients take the law into their own hands, promoting lawlessness (Cohen 1971, 138, 145). Civil disobedience proposes to discredit the government, leading others to disobey what might be just laws. In this way, civil disobedience could introduce chaos and anarchy into society, ultimately disrupting the social fabric. While on the surface there seems to be some validity to this argument, Dr. King again refutes it eloquently. He says,
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law. . . . That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks a law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. (qtd. in Cohen and Fermon 1996, 628)

According to King, one of the core principles of civil disobedience is that breaking what is perceived as an unjust law and willfully accepting the consequences is in fact an act of meaningful veneration for the law rather than a desperate and meaningless act. Teaching students about civil disobedience in this manner gives them an opportunity to learn about a means of nonviolent citizen action, while encouraging them to develop an ardent reverence for the law. Teaching about Civil Disobedience Civil disobedience is an essential component of any social studies course that strives to foster democratic citizenship. The Center for Civic Education (1994) makes the study of civil disobedience part of a broader question in grades 912 by asking, How can citizens take part in civic life? (135). Under the section titled Forms of Political Participation, The Center for Civic Education asks students to explain what civil disobedience is, how it differs from other forms of protest, what its consequences may be, and [to] evaluate the circumstances under which it might be justified (13536). Civil disobedience is also a part of state frameworks

Dr. Kings words eloquently refute the notion that acts of civil disobedience are based on self-interest. Instead, he argues that these acts are the ultimate contribution to the common good for all people in society.


for social studies. In its California HistorySocial Science Standards, the California Department of Education (1998), for example, states:
Students formulate questions about and defend their analyses of tensions within our constitutional democracy and the importance of maintaining a balance between the following concepts: majority rule and individual rights; liberty and equality; state and national authority in a federal system; civil disobedience and the rule of law; freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial; the relationship of religion and government.

Civil disobedience is an important part of state standards even when the term is not mentioned explicitly. The Missouri Curriculum Guide for the Social Studies, for example, does not mention the concept specifically, but civil disobedience is certainly a part of questions such as the following: (1) What are the personal, political, and economic rights of citizens? (2) What are the personal and civic responsibilities of citizens? and (3) When do civic obligations imply that personal desires and interests be subordinated to the public good? (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 1996, 136). Our brief examination of several leading U.S. history and government textbooks suggests that teachers may need to use supplementary resources in teaching civil disobedience. Therefore, in appendix A, a sample lesson plan is included that could supplement a unit in which civil disobedience plays an important role. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to define civil disobedience, distinguish civil disobedience from other types of protest, and explain when its use is justified in a democracy. Students will also be able to examine and apply the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s Letter From Birmingham Jail. A list of further reading is given in appendix B. Civil disobedience is an important and often misunderstood concept. It is hard to imagine what our country or world would be like if Henry David Thoreau had not protested the MexicanAmerican War and the expansion of slavery in refusing to pay his poll tax;

if Mohandas Gandhi, inspired by Thoreaus essay on civil disobedience, had listened when he was told to wait; if Rosa Parks had given up her seat; and if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had never employed civil disobedience to fuel the civil rights movement. Students should be given several opportunities during their precollegiate education to explore civil disobedience in depth. A comprehensive understanding of civil disobedience will allow students to place important historical events in context, while helping them appreciate and understand the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.


Berrigan, D. 1970. The trial of the Catonsville Nine. Boston: Beacon Press. California Department of Education. 1998. Historysocial science content standards: Principles of American democracies and economies. ss/hstgrade12.asp (accessed December 8, 2006). Center for Civic Education. 1994. National standards for civics and government. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education. Cohen, C. 1971. Civil disobedience: Conscience, tactics, and the law. New York: Columbia University Press. Cohen, M., and N. Fermon, eds. 1996. Princeton readings in political thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. King, M. L., Jr. 1993. Martin Luther King, Jr.s Letter from Birmingham jail. Oneonta, NY: Hartwick Humanities in Management Institute. Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 1996. How do the lives of individuals and conditions in society affect each other? Missouris framework for curriculum development in social studies. curriculum/frameworks/ss4complete.pdf (accessed December 8, 2006). Quigley, C. N., and C. F. Bahmueller. 1991. Civitas: A framework for civic education. Calabasas, CA: Center For Civic Education. Reeve, C. D. C. 2002. The trials of Socrates: Six classic texts. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Sullivan, D. M. 2007. Letter to the editor, New York Times, March 27. Terkel, S. N. 1996. People power: A look at nonviolent action and defense. New York: Lodestar Books. Thoreau, H. D. 1969. Civil disobedience. Boston: D. R. Godine. Walzer, M. 1970. Obligations: Essays on disobedience, war, and citizenship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

1. Prior to the lesson have the students read Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and prepare answers to the following questions: What is civil disobedience? What justifications for using civil disobedience are given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? What are other possible modes of protest Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could have used? How does Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. distinguish between just and unjust laws? When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, is this valid? Why or why not? In your opinion, what portion do you find most meaningful in the letter from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Why? 2. Write three situations on the board, such as the following: killing someone; stealing a CD from a store; and paying a $100 voter registration fee. Ask the students to explain why each situation is considered unjust. Has each situation always been considered unjust? 3. Explain civil law, natural law, and higher law. Ask the students to consider the type of law by which each situation is considered unjust (civil law, natural law, or higher law). When discussing the situation of paying a $100 voter registration fee, ask how this could be deemed just at one point in history and unjust at present under civil law? What was the process by which this shift happened? 4. Discuss the assigned questions concerning the Letter from Birmingham Jail. For each question, have five students write their answers on the board. Compare their answers and use this as the basis for discussion of the essay. 5. In preparation for the activity, reiterate that civil disobedience is justified when civil/human law does not conform to higher or moral law; repeated attempts to work within the public policy have failed; the civil disobedience is likely to cast light on some injustice; and it is carried out in a nonviolent way and the lawbreaker accepts responsibility and punishment. 6. Small group activity: Break the class into five groups and assign each group one of the scenarios below. Each group has the task of determining whether its scenario is a case of civil disobedience and is justified in a democracy.


The students should use the definition and justifications derived from the discussion of Kings letter to determine if their scenario is a legitimate case of civil disobedience. If it is not civil disobedience, they must explain why to the rest of the class. Have each group share their decisions and justifications as to whether the lawbreaker was justified in each scenario. Allow the class to discuss each others decisions and justifications. Scenarios: An anti-abortion protester shoots and kills two doctors that perform abortions. The protester shot the doctors on their way into an abortion clinic and in front of thirty protesters. The protester is immediately arrested. The protester states that he was right in taking two lives because he saved hundreds in the process and accepts his punishment. In the south, in the 1960s, a group of four African American men walks into a restaurant, disregarding the sign that says Whites only. Despite heckling, the men sit down. Five minutes later the four men are escorted out of the restaurant by police. The four men are charged with trespassing. Following the arrest of, charging of, and rumor of four African American men being beaten and dragged from a restau-

rant, the predominately African American town breaks into riots. The focal point of the riots is the restaurant; its windows are shattered and the building is set on fire. Twenty-seven people are arrested on various charges. A town repaves a neighborhood road and puts in new sidewalks. In the process the town put a new stop sign at a threeway stop, which had previously never had any stop signs. There was not any noticeable increase in traffic. A resident of the neighborhood who travels the road every day finds the new stop sign very annoying and unnecessary. The resident decides one night to steal the stop sign in protest without anyone knowing. A small-business owner, who imports 90 percent of the goods he sells, trades with a country that is faced with an international trade embargo issued by the United States. The man is arrested and fined. The owner challenges the charges, saying that he has nothing against the country. The owner states that he is not willing to allow people of that country to suffer because the United States decides to stop all trade with that country because of that countrys pursuit of nuclear technology. The owner believes that this embargo is wrong, he did not issue it, and therefore it does not apply to him.

7. Closing activity: Ask the students to think of any laws or school policies today that might warrant acts of civil disobedience. Discuss the situation of Cardinal Mahony and the justifications for his actions, while comparing it with the incident at Columbia University.


Bay, C., and C. C. Walker. 1975. Civil disobedience: Theory and practice. Montreal: Black Rose Books. Brinkley, A. 1999. American history: A survey. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Davis, J. E., and P. M. Fernlund. 1991. Civics: Participating in our democracy. New York: Addison-Wesley. National Council for the Social Studies. 1994. Expectations of excellence: Curriculum standards for social studies. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies. Rawls, J. 1999. Collected papers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wilson, J. Q., and J. J. Dilulio Jr. 1998. American Government. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Zashin, E. M. 1972. Civil disobedience and democracy. New York: The Free Press.