Activist toolkit

Civil disobedience

Definition of civil disobedience

refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government
An accompanying feature is usually also submitting to the legal consequences. Many protestors who have engaged in civil disobedience have used their court appearances as an opportunity to state their case for protest.

Some prominent people who have engaged in civil disobedience:
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), a British activist who campaigned for women to have the right to vote (called ‘suffrage’). She and her Women’s Social and Political Movement broke the law by disrupting parliament, chaining themselves to railings and burning churches. Many were imprisoned and went on hunger strike.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948), an Indian activist who campaigned for India’s independence from Britain. At the time, Indians were prohibited from collecting or selling salt (which everyone needed), so Gandhi organised a small group of followers to collect salt from seawater. This action was called the Salt March. More and more people joined across the coastal cities. Gandhi was arrested but by then he had thousands of followers in his campaign of satyagraha, or civil disobedience. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist in 1948, after India gained independence.

Rosa Parks (1913-2005), is known as the mother of the American civil rights movement because she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man, as then required under Alabama state law. She was arrested (but only fined) but her action sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which eventually led to the US Supreme Court striking down the Alabama state and Montgomery city laws that required blacks and whites to travel separately on buses.

Rolihlahla (Nelson) Mandela (1918-2013) was an activist involved in both non-violent and violent resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Apartheid (a Dutch-Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’) laws made black, white and ‘coloured’ South Africans live, travel, go to school and shop in separate places. While they were supposed to be ‘separate but equal’, the minority white population had access to good education, jobs and property, while the others, particularly the majority black population, did not. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 and spent the next 26 years in prison. During his trial, instead of testifying, he made a three hour ‘Speech from the Dock‘, where he declared he was prepared to die for democratic ideals. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990-91, Mandela was elected President of South Africa in the first multi-racial election in 1994.

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) organised the Montgomery bus boycott, and also played a leading role in the Birmingham campaign (Birmingham and Montgomery are towns in the US state of Alabama, which was one of the states that had slavery before the US Civil War in the 1860s). As a result he was arrested and imprisoned, where he wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, which laid out his case for equal rights for black Americans, and criticised those arguing for a more moderate approach to civil rights. During the March on Washington in 1963, when 250,000 people marched in the US capital to protest against inequality suffered by black Americans, King made his famous ‘I have a dream‘ speech. He was killed in 1968 by a white racist. The 3rd Monday in January is now a national holiday in the US, called ‘Martin Luther King Day’.

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