Civil disobedience, which is sometimes also referred to as nonviolent resistance, is typically defined as the act of refusing to obey certain laws of a government. Closely associated with Henry David Thoreau’s essay on the subject, civil disobedience is a common theme throughout high school literature and can also be found in the writings of peace activitists Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, as well as renowned authors Arthur Miller and Ray Bradbury, to name a few.
“Resistance to Civil Government”
This essay, which was written by Henry David Thoreau in 1849, is recognized as the quintessential piece of writing about the topic of civil disobedience – so much so, in fact, that it is most often referred to as “Civil Disobedience” instead of its full, proper title. In this piece, Thoreau criticizes his fellow citizens for passively accepting governmental laws, even if they disagree with the laws. To prove his point, he refused to pay a tax that he believed was intended to finance a war he didn’t believe in – and he spent time in jail as a result.
“Letter from Birmingham City Jail”
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this famous piece in April 1963, shortly after he was arrested for defying an injunction against marching by leading a peaceful march toward Birmingham City Hall with about 50 protestors. King had been in Birmingham to lead a boycott against segregation in stores, and about four blocks into the march, the police turned fire hoses on the marchers and arrested them. In this letter, King makes an urgent plea for his fellow citizens to fight injustice using similar, nonviolent means.
“On Nonviolent Resistance”
In perhaps one of the most famous pieces of literature about civil disobedience, Indian activist Mohandas K. Gandhi writes about “satyagraha,” or fighting injustice with noncooperation. Ghandi, who was frequently arrested and imprisoned for nonviolent acts, publicly stated that Thoreau’s writings had a profound effect on him. In this piece, he urged his followers to continue to practice satyagraha, even when confronted with the police’s violent tactics.
Although most people recognize Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” as an examination about the Salem Witch Trials, it is actually Miller’s 1953 response to being investigated for subversive communism by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Using historical figures as central characters in his play, Miller expresses his disgust about government hypocrisy and injustice during the cold war. He uses the analogy of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, when rumors festered into suspicions, and those suspicions, in turn, translated into mass hysteria among the people of the village.
Ray Bradbury’s dystopian 1953 novel tells the tale of Guy Montag, whose job as a fireman is to burn the houses of anyone who is caught owning books. In the novel, Montag undergoes an awakening and defies the laws of not only his job but also of his government. Along with a small group of protestors, he vows instead to preserve literary works and, therefore, human culture by memorizing as much literature as they can, until they are able to write it again. Montag’s refusal to cooperate with governmental rule provides a perfect exploration of civil disobedience, as well as the power of the individual to change laws that are considered unjust or, at best, arbitrary.
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