This post is entitled Civil Disobedience.
If ever, is Civil Disobedience ever justified, or is it a thing of the past? This is an article I wrote for my college English writing class, the question of the assignment. It is also a long cry from my normal writing tone. Enjoy
Bobby Seal, cofounder of one of the most hated, feared, and misunderstood regimes in American history , The Black Panther Party for Self Defense once said: “Our position was: “If you don’t attack us, there won’t be any violence; if you bring violence to us, we will defend ourselves.” But not only did he tout a militant type mindset, but also preached a more loving tone of integration, “You don’t fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity.” It was this level of interracial harmony that was never portrayed by the mass media, only that of a crazed Para-militaristic terrorist regime bullying innocent citizens and barking about the so-called police brutality and unjust laws. In America we have the never before seen opportunity of living in a country of every conceivable race, creed, and religious background all sharing the same roof we call these United States. However, we also have the most basic governing civilization problem that always been the thorn of mankind: unjust laws. I make the claim that it is not our responsibility, but a moral obligation, to break unjust laws continually and consistently until the unjust laws become just.
From the words of Frederick Douglass, an African-American slave who authored the self-titled, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave; to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s stance on women’s right in Declaration of Sentiments and Resolution; and finally to the unforgettable words of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who responded to a letter from eight white Alabama clergymen in Letter from Birmingham Jail; I un-root the issue of breaking laws in the name of true justice, and smash Thomas Hobbes ideas that “[law’s] are for protection by promising obedience”.
On June 9, 2010, the headline of the Huffington Post Business Section read “Making the Business Case for Dairy Farmers Civil Disobedience”. The article goes on to speak of how dairy farmers are selling unprocessed and non-pasteurized cow’s milk at prices of anywhere from $5 to $10 per gallon. Currently in the United States it is illegal to sell non-pasteurized milk to the general public and with the current wholesale price and overabundance of pasteurized milk at $1 to $1.50 dairy farmers are having a hard time making a profit. The issue that many proponents of unprocessed foods groups are making is the government is forcing people to eat what they deem safe. In this country we pride ourselves in being the ‘Land of the Free, and home of the brave,’ yet when it comes to drinking something as basic as raw milk, somehow those rights seem to fall by the wayside. Although not explicitly said in the Post, a bigger issue arises: where does government intervention stop? In light of the recent legislation, in 2014 all Americans will be required to have either government issued or privately owned healthcare. There are talks amongst the opposition of government-backed healthcare that this will infringe even further on our personal freedoms. At some point the government must protect their investment and make it a requirement that an individual must eat certain foods in order to qualify for healthcare. Current insurance companies do it now indirectly by charging higher premiums for individuals with pre-existing conditions or by flat out denying insurance. I believe it is the right of citizens to buy whatever they desire and the farmers to sell whatever meets that desire. It’s the laws that start at a basic level which end up turning into bigger laws. This selling and buying of the raw milk is just a small case of civil disobedience by both farmers and citizens, but it’s the small cases multiplied by 100’s which add up. In the case of Frederick Douglass, it was his “legs of civil disobedience” which brought forth change.
As an African-America slave Frederick Douglass suffered many days of being whipped, beaten, and other cruel indignities that were the norm of black slaves in that time. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Mr. Douglass said “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead…”. A few short years earlier the Declaration of Independence was written that granted every man the God given right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” A person endowed with certain God given “unalienable rights” should never feel the need of regretting his own existence. If these “unalienable rights” are truly God given, but the law states that slavery is legal and makes a man to wish himself dead, there is something seriously wrong with the law. Had Mr. Douglass just obeyed the law, a law that starved him, a law that beat him, and a law that made him want to commit suicide, he would have done an injustice not only to himself but to millions and millions of African-American’s in his preceding generation. Later Mr. Douglass went on to say “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Technically, when Mr. Douglass ran he broke the law or committed an act of civil disobedience. If it weren’t for civil disobedience, life and liberty would not be possible for a slave. Civil disobedience made the “pursuit of happiness” real for Mr. Douglass. His moral obligation alongside other slaves’ decisions to break the law consistently and continually until an unjust law was no longer a law. This civil disobedience is what granted freedom for not only him but eventually to the four million African-American slaves, and helped shape the slave to non-slave landscape of America.
In her book the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who some consider the “great-grandmother of the American feminist rights movement”, directly addressed the issues of women’s rights in a time where women’s rights “were as far as east is from the west.” She surmised that “Resolved, that woman is man’s equal – was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.” Unheard of during this time, Mrs. Stanton’s views were not much different from Frederick Douglass’s when he stated that the God given rights of “men” really only meant “white men.” Women were really only one-step above that of a Black American slave. Although not as racially charged as a Frederick Douglass or a Martin Luther King Jr., the injustices were still there. I believe that her book was looked at as an abomination to the good will of the forefathers of the United States during this time. A woman having the audacity to write a parody of the Declaration of Independence and the nerve to have it published: such civil disobedience a century earlier would have gotten her drawn and quartered. However, this is not jolly Ol’ England. This was and still is America; the home of where civil disobedience is a moral obligation and where it is our civic duty to fight unjust laws until they become just.
In his Letters from Birmingham Jail, during which time Dr. Martin Luther King was incarcerated for civil disobedience, he addressed the white clergymen who had urged the “Negro community to withdraw support” from violent and non-violent demonstrations against segregation and other racial injustices. Dr. Martin Luther King eloquently wrote how he could not stop these demonstrations because he would have to tell his six-year old daughter that “Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to for in her little mental sky.” He also spoke of the humiliating effects of consistently hearing racially charged slurs, “when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,”. Under no circumstances should going to jail involve defending your daughter’s right to go to ‘Funtown’ or any other amusement park, nor should a person be jailed for hearing something as vile as the word ‘nigger’ come from the mouths of another human being. I conclude that it is one thing to talk about unjust laws from the armchair of your living room sofa, and it is another to demonstrate non-violently, risk going to jail and to ultimately die for the idea that there should be “equal rights” for all. This is just one more example of how one of our greatest leaders in American history broke unjust laws continually and consistently until unjust laws became just.
Finally we have the Black Panther Party (BPP), originally named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. This group of African-American men was active from the mid 1960’s through the mid 1970’s. Their agenda for equal rights and safe streets in predominantly Afro-American communities called for a 10-point program of equal rights in “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.” However, the real goal of the party was “We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.” During the 1960’s when racial crimes were at a fever pitch, some people thought that the only way to fight fire was with fire: some members of the BPP were habitual breakers of unjust laws. While I know that the news media painted an unpleasant picture of the BPP, and some of this was well deserved, while other bad press was not. One thing the party did do was stand up for the rights of African-American men and women, and to a lesser extent, women’s equality. While some of their methods to obtain equal rights may have been questionable, their effect on our society and the ability to cause social change cannot be denied. They successfully established a Free Breakfast for Children program and an armed citizen patrol in predominantly black neighborhoods where police brutality on innocent citizens ran rampant. It was the choice of the Black Panther Party to break unjust laws continually and consistently until unjust laws became just.
As you can see from history, whether in the famous words of Bobby Seal “Our position was: “If you don’t attack us, there won’t be any violence; if you bring violence to us, we will defend ourselves.”; or the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King “The willingness to accept the penalty for breaking the unjust law is what makes civil disobedience a moral act and not merely an act of law-breaking.”, or the early philosopher Augustine of Hippo who said “An unjust law is no law at all”, it was summed up best by the French intellectual Jean Paul Sarte and human rights activist Malcolm X who both said “…by any means necessary”, when it came to making unjust laws just. Whether by nonviolent demonstrations of law-breaking or literally taking the law into your own hands as some of members of the BPP did, breaking unjust laws is not only a Constitutional right, but a moral obligation as a citizen of these Untied States.
This was a writing assignment from my college English writing class (302) on Civil Disobedience.