“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
People have protested unjust laws ever since they were first promulgated. Some scholars claim Gandhi was influenced by an ancient tradition of civil disobedience in his own country, and we now know that Gandhi protested South African pass laws a year before he read Henry David Thoreau’s famous work On Civil Disobedience in 1907.
It cannot be doubted, however, that Thoreau’s work did give an intellectual framework for Gandhi’s program of active nonviolence as well as new ideas for specific forms of noncooperation.
When faced with unjust laws, Thoreau proposed that people could “obey them, amend them, or transgress them.”
With respect to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Thoreau chose to transgress. In eventually supporting the violent acts of John Brown, Thoreau broke with the nonviolence resistance to which Gandhi and King consistently adhered.
In July 1846, Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax and spent one night in jail for his crime. Thoreau proclaimed that “under a government that imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.” Gandhi and King would go to jail for much longer terms and willingly accept the punishment for breaking the law.
We can now begin to discern several principles of civil disobedience.
The first principle is that you maintain respect for the rule of law even while disobeying the specific law that you perceive as unjust.
Gandhi admired Socrates’ respect for Athenian law and his decision not to flee even after his prison guards were bribed.
King was always confident that American democracy would eventually treat his people as equal under the rule of law.
Nonviolent activists do not seek to undermine the rule of law, but only the repeal of unjust laws. Gandhi and King’s demands were clear and simple: Laws that discriminated and disenfranchised must be abolished. India’s outcastes, African-Americans, and GLBTQ people do not want “special rights”; they simply want the rights that all others enjoy.
The second principle of civil disobedience follows from the first: You should plead guilty to any violation of the law. As Gandhi explains: “I am here to submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me.” Gandhi instructed his disciples to take the penance of their oppressors upon themselves.
Gandhi’s tactics were a form of moral and political jujitsu. Some of Gandhi’s judges felt as if they were the ones charged and convicted. They were befuddled and ashamed. Thoreau said that his one night in jail made the state look foolish.
We have now arrived at the third principle of civil disobedience: You should attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice of your cause. Active nonviolence does not seek, as Gandhi says, “to defeat or humiliate your opponents, but to win their friendship and understanding.”
Gandhi would have agreed with King’s axiom that “there is within human nature something that can respond to goodness.”
This is what gave King hope that “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
Although Thoreau quoted Hindu scripture in his book Walden, there is a much stronger spiritual dimension to Gandhi and King’s political activism. One could criticize them for violating the hallowed separation of politics from religion.
The First Amendment, however, does not ban the expression of religious views; it only proscribes the favoring of one religion over another. Gandhi and King’s vision was inclusive and nonjudgmental, rather than declarations of those who claim that their faith must rule supreme and all others must be defeated.
Nonviolent resistance to oppressive regimes had a good track record in the late 20th century. From the Baltic states across to Ukraine, and east to the Philippines, ordinary people in dozens of countries have proved Thoreau correct: “When all subjects have refused allegiance, and all officers have resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished.” We still, however, have a long way to go.
Nick Gier, University of Idaho professor emeritus, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.