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What Is Civil Disobedience? - Definition, Acts & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Civil…
  • 1:02 Origin and History
  • 2:14 Tactics and Examples
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Janell Blanco

Janell has an MBA.

Change never comes easy. Read on to learn about civil disobedience, its origins, tactics used in non-violent protest, and examples of civil disobedience throughout history.

Definition of Civil Disobedience

Throughout history, there have been innumerable instances of people protesting governments to express their desires for change. Unfortunately, sometimes these expressions of displeasure with the status quo take a violent turn. There have been plenty of non-violent protests as well. Staged sit-ins, marches, blockades, and hunger strikes have all be tactics used to raise awareness about issues that are taking place in society.

Non-violent demonstrations such as these are known as civil disobedience. Civil disobedience, also known as passive or non-violent resistance, is defined as purposely disobeying the law based on moral or political principles. Civil disobedient acts manifest as peaceful and nonviolent protests. They are crimes but they differ in that the individual committing the illegal act is knowingly doing so in the hopes of making a political, social, or economical change.

Origin and History

The term 'civil disobedience' originated with the works of Henry David Thoreau. In 1848, Thoreau used the phrase in an essay to describe his decision to refuse paying a state poll tax enacted by the U.S. government that would fund a war in Mexico and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Though 1848 was the first time the term was used, the act of disobeying laws as a means of protest is far, far older. Instances of the concept are found in Socrates work, the age-old belief in Indian duty or dharma, in the expressions of St. Thomas Aquinas of the Middle Ages, and even in the arguments of John Locke late in the 17th century.

One of the most famous and well-supported instances of long-term civil disobedience can be found with Gandhi and his work in the early 1900s to fight for the civil rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa. When Gandhi began his movement for equality in 1906, he had not yet read Thoreau's essay and instead termed the acts as satyagraha, or firmness in adhering to truth. Because his goals were based in a desire for moral and societal change as Thoreau described, Gandhi would later equate the two concepts.

Tactics and Examples

Acts of civil disobedience can manifest in any number of ways, though there are several rather popular demonstrations that have been used in non-violent protest. Hunger strikes, sit-ins or sit-downs, the Freedom Rides, and marches have all be effective displays of civil disobedience in American history.

A hunger strike is when one or more individuals refuse to eat in the hopes that awareness will be raised about a perceived injustice. Hunger strikes are a form of protest that may be used where fewer personal freedoms are available, such as within the prison system.

Sit-ins or sit-downs are when protesters strategize a disturbance in a specific location by physically sitting down and refusing to move, often in large groups. One of the most famous sit-ins in American history took place in a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February of 1960. Also part of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Greensboro sit-in began with four African-American students sitting down at the 'whites only' lunch counter of the store and refusing to move until closing. The following day, more protesters did the same. By the fourth day, hundreds of individuals were participating and sit-ins had been launched at other locations throughout the state. Ultimately, the movement led to the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters, though it would be many more years before desegregation happened outside of the city.

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