Selma March 1965 (Top); Congressional “Hands up” Protest 2014 (Bottom)
Is it perhaps a traditional of civil disobedience that makes the United States
unique? What policies and movements have developed from this position? What
is the future of american political life?
Throughout history, when a group of marginalized people feel as though their rights are being threatened by the laws that govern them, they disobey from the beginning of the American Revolution until current times during the Baltimore Protests, part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement. A great example of civil disobedience in history is during the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, starring historical figures such as John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Although each activist had a different stance on civil disobedience and how it should be conveyed and acted out, they each took part in it.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter, he writes to disgruntled clergymen who criticized his efforts in peaceful protests and demonstrations against violence. He despises the idea that anyone can be an outsider within their own country; wherever there is an injustice, he feels as though he has a right to be there to fix the injustice. Importantly, he then writes, “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being” (579). He honestly believed that nonviolence was a means of solving the injustice and would spark negotiation between those of power and the protestors: “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored” (579). Additionally, he goes on to explain the difference between a law and an unjust law, emphasizing that civil disobedience is okay when acting against an unjust law: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law” (582).
Today, unfortunately, we can see that MLK’s words still remain prevalent during current civil disobedience demonstrations, which indeed have turned violent due to the arguable injustices caused by those in power, particularly America’s current policing system. Policy-wise, people are legally allowed to peacefully protest and gather for a cause. However, these protests have been met with resistance, which has led to the violent outcry we currently see on our televisions, social media, and news outlets. What is the future of American political life? I am not sure, but from history, I do know it will be filled with anguish and struggle between the oppressed trying to dismantle the same system that the oppressors will fight to uphold.
Going back to MLK’s letter, when he says “you deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being,” can that apply to what is currently happening in Baltimore, Ferguson, or any other place where people are protesting out of fear, anger, and a passion for justice?