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civil disobedience

civil disobedience, refusal to obey a law or follow a policy believed to be unjust. Practitioners of civil disobedience usual base their actions on moral right and employ the nonviolent technique of passive resistance in order to bring wider attention to the injustice. Risking punishment, such as violent retaliatory acts or imprisonment, they attempt to bring about changes in the law. In the modern era, civil disobedience has been used in such events as street demonstrations, marches, the occupying of buildings, and strikes and other forms of economic resistance.

The philosophy behind civil disobedience goes back to classical and biblical sources. Perhaps its most influential exposition can be found in Henry David Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), in which he claims that the individual, who grants the state its power in the first place, must follow the dictates of conscience in opposing unjust laws. Thoreau's work had an enormous impact on Mohandas Gandhi and the techniques that he employed first to gain Indian rights in South Africa and later to win independence for India. Gandhi developed the notion of satyagraha [Sanskrit: holding to truth], acts of civil disobedience marked by Indian tradition and his own high moral standards and sense of self-discipline. Attracting a huge number of followers from the Indian public, Gandhi was able to use the technique as an effective political tool and play a key role in bringing about the British decision to end colonial rule of his homeland. His was one of the few relatively unqualified successes in the history of civil disobedience.

The philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience have been used by Quakers and other religious groups, the British labor movement, suffragists, feminists, adherents of prohibition, pacifists and other war resisters (see conscientious objector), supporters of the disabled, and a wide variety of other dissenters. In the United States, the most outstanding theoretician and practitioner of civil disobedience was civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the 1950s and 60s he achieved international fame by leading numerous peaceful marches, boycotts, and sit-ins. Like Gandhi, he was jailed several times. The beatings, mass arrests, and even killings of civil-rights demonstrators pledged to nonviolent civil disobedience were important factors in swaying public opinion and in the ultimate passage of new civil-rights legislation (see integration). Civil disobedience in the United States traditionally has been associated with those on the left of the political spectrum, as were most participants in the anti–Vietnam War movement, but toward the end of the 20th cent. the strategy also began to be employed by those on the right, for example, by those involved in confrontational but nonviolent antiabortion activities.

See G. Woodcock, Civil Disobedience (1966); C. Bay and C. C. Walker, Civil Disobedience (1973, repr. 1999); D. R. Weber, ed., Civil Disobedience in America: A Documentary History (1978); J. De Nardo, Power in Numbers (1985); P. Harris, ed., Civil Disobedience (1989); H. A. Bedau, ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus (1991); P. Herngren, Paths of Resistance (1993); M. Randle, Civil Disobedience (1994); S. L. Carter, The Dissent of the Governed (1998); R. Bleiker, Popular Dissent, Human Agency, and Global Politics (2000); A. Roberts and T. G. Ash, ed., Civil Resistance and Power Politics (2009).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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