Civil Disobedience in the United States

On Saturday January 20th 2018, one year after the first women’s march commenced in response to President Trump’s inauguration and issues within the country, the second women’s march has inspired women of all ages to come out and make it an annual tradition. This public and national display of civil disobedience has sparked a conversation about the history of civil activism in the United States. Civil disobedience has been a part of the political scene of the United States since the Boston Tea Party with the historical origin of the term going all the way back to Socrates. In his time in Athens, Socrates was teaching the youth in his classroom but also in the community to challenge authority and seek the truth in their surroundings through asking questions and challenging the norms and traditions of the government. He actions were considered a misdemeanor in the eyes of the government; Socrates was subsequently charged with corrupting the youth and not believing in the City’s Gods—a central belief to the Greek city-states.

In his Apology, written down by his student Plato, Socrates defends his choices and teachings, saying that it is his destiny to question everything even if he was most likely put on trial for embarrassing the government. Although he was ultimately sentenced to death by the court (Plato),  the scholar stood up for what he believed in and chose his destiny to face the punishment  instead of fleeing. For Socrates, the founding principle in democracy is the idea that no individual is above the rule of law. From this democratic principle and other examples from the ancient times, modern day civil disobedience emerged.

The characteristics of civil disobedience are to publically highlight a grievance within government or an issue someone finds important. But, as imperative as the act is on its own, it is more important to accept the punishment within the society and get government's attention to highlight the specific issue they have rather than criticising the society as a whole. It seems counterintuitive, but rejecting the entire institution lessens the effect of the civil disobedience because the protester is seen as a radical who is outside society and therefore does not need to be taken seriously. Whereas accepting the society— even with its injustices— gives the person credibility. This is highlighted in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

He explains how important civil disobedience is to both society and himself. Not only did he write about it, he lived it. In 1847, Thoreau protested the Mexican-American War and slavery by not paying his taxes: he did so publically as a way to highlight the specific reason he was protesting. Without the public  aspect of the protest, he would have just seemed like a random person not paying his taxes and abusing the system. Thoreau did not necessarily believe in fighting against evil, but rather abstaining from it through challenging the duties of citizenship (Thoreau). This is one of many instances in which Americans have expressed their civil disobedience for a cause. Another widely known example is Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for civil rights through civil disobedience and peaceful protests. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail written in 1963 (King Jr.) followed his arrest against segregation in Alabama. Some white, southern Clergymen wrote an open letter to him in the local newspaper condemning his actions and he chose to respond through civil means and the written word. This letter explained philosophically why these rules and laws in the South were racist and why protesters were civilly disobeying them. He used the arrest to his advantage to further exemplify the unjust treatment of people and he accepted the punishment because he was trying to reform the government and but not totally disregard the country it was built upon.

There has to be give and take with these types of protest because these people want to stand up and have their voices heard and the injustices resolved. But if they do it in a way that attacks the other side, then the other side might be less willing to compromise and help. Which is so difficult because more often than not these marginalized groups, ideas, and people have been attacked for generations.  Trying to stand up for a cause and be the bigger person while also making a stand is no easy feat. That is why these moments of civil disobedience go down in history. There have been instances leading all the way up. For example, in 2016 Colin Kaepernick kneeled before the flag and national anthem to protest racial injustice and it sparked an entire controversial moment that is still happening today.

These acts are extremely controversial in nature and that is the reality of civil disobedience. Many minds, many opinions; what is an act of peaceful activism to one, is a disrespectful showcase of opinion (and even terrorism) to others. That is what happened in the Charlottesville protest last year when white supremacists protested on the campus of University of Virginia in opposition to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Some, including our president, thought that this protest had good people and good intentions involved, while others say it as a racist terrorist attack meant to incite violence in a polarized community.

While the women’s march can be seen as a women’s empowerment movement,others choose to see it as a bunch of whiney women getting together complaining about something that is not even a problem. With each of these acts of protest, look at them though a critical eye and see what they are actually fighting for. Of course, the acts of activism I’ve mentioned are not perfect; just like any social movement, they have flaws and problematic features within; however, we’re fortunate enough to live in a country where individuals have the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. We as people just need to decide what acts and movements are trying to address injustices rather than create them.



Eckert, Lynn. Law and Morality, Political Science Capping, 23 January 2018, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY. Lecture.

King Jr., Martin Luther. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 16 Apr. 1963,

Plato. Apology. Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. 1849,


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