What is Civil Disobedience?
Is it ever right to break the law? The dictionary defines civil disobedience as the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest. Many people have been civil disobedients. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Antigone are a couple of examples. There have been cases of civil disobedience since early Greece and Rome to recently in America. People become civil disobedients because they see something in their society that they don’t agree with or think should be changed. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil disobedient because, during that time in America, black people were treated very poorly. Dr. King didn’t like that at all, and he led many peaceful protests to try and change that situation. Taking into consideration several of the cases of civil disobedience, it is all right to break the law if you are trying to change something in your society for the better. In the play Antigone, Antigone hears a decree from the king saying that no one should bury her brother, Polynices, because he was proclaimed to be a traitor.
Anyone who tried to bury him would also be declared a traitor and put to death. However, since Antigone loved her brother very much, she risked her life to bury Polynices and was eventually caught and sent to a cave with very little food to die. She eventually ended up hanging herself with her veil, then the king’s son, who was supposed to be her husband killed himself with his sword. Then the king’s wife, when she found out her son was dead, stabbed herself with a knife until she died. When reading this story, a question comes to mind: why would Antigone risk her life to bury her brother when she knew she would more than likely die? The answer comes from Antigone when she was talking to the king when she was convicted: “It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice that rules the world below makes no such laws.” (Antigone, Antigone) Antigone loved her brother very much and believed he should be honored. But she also believed there was a higher law that governed and had more power than the laws of kings. Because she believed that the king’s law was “not God’s proclamation”, she was not afraid to take the risk to bury her brother. Would Antigone be considered a civil disobedient though? She saw a problem in her society: not burying her brother and calling him a traitor. She took peaceful means to attempt and change that problem: burying him in secret. So she would be considered a civil disobedient, and it would be all right to break the law in that case. Even though Antigone is just a play, we find another case of civil disobedience that is a very real story.
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Esther was a woman who lived in ancient Babylon. The king was hosting a party and ordered his wife to come to him. She said no and the king divorced her. Later, the king tried to find a new wife by asking all single ladies to come to the palace. Esther was one of them, and the king liked her the best. Her cousin, Mordecai, was a guard for the palace and every night he would check on her. Esther and Mordecai were Jews, though, so Mordecai wouldn’t let Esther tell anyone she was a Jew. One day, a man named Haman was mad because Mordecai did not bow to him when he passed by the gate. (Haman was the second in command over the entire kingdom.) Haman went to the king and said the Jews were not obeying the king’s laws, and they should be put to death. The king agreed, and Haman put the law to act. When Mordecai heard of it, he went to Esther and asked if she could go to the king and ask him to reverse the law. Esther wasn’t allowed to go see the king unless he held out his scepter to her, and if he didn’t, she would die. Then Mordecai said, “It may very well be that you have achieved royal status for such a time as this!” (Mordecai, Esther) After that, Esther went to the king, and he held out his golden scepter to her. Then he asked what she wanted, and she asked if he and Haman could come to a banquet she would make. The king said yes, and they both came to the banquet. When asked again what she wanted, Esther asked if the king and Haman could come to another banquet the next night, and they both said yes.
The next night, when she was once again asked what she wanted, Esther told the king of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews. The king was very angry and ordered that Haman be hanged. Afterward, the king told Esther to write a new law saying the Jews could defend themselves when the time of slaughter came. When reading this story, the same question that came to mind when reading Antigone once again comes up: why would Esther risk her life to save her people? The answer comes when Esther is begging the king to save her people. She says to him, “…how can I watch the calamity that will befall on my people, and how can I watch the destruction of my relatives?” (Esther, Esther) Her answer is very similar to Antigone’s. Esther believed there was a higher law that was more powerful and meant more to her than the king’s law. She also loved her people very much and didn’t want to see them all killed. Even though she was scared, she wanted to try and save them, just like Antigone. In that case, Esther would also be considered a civil disobedient. She saw something in her society that was not good and she wanted to change it, Haman proclaiming all the Jews would be killed, and she took peaceful measures to try and change it: she invited the king and Haman to supper and asked if her people could be spared. Even though she had to break a law to get an audience with the king, it was worth it in the end because she saved her people.
Esther’s breaking the law was justified because she was trying to save her people and herself from slaughter, and she did it peacefully. Esther and Antigone aren’t the only civil disobedients though. Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we will find probably the most famous civil disobedient in 20th century America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929. He was a strong civil rights movement person for his people and donated much of his time and energy to the cause. He was a leader of the first nonviolent demonstration of Negros: the bus boycott. Back then, Negros couldn’t ride in the same place as whites. The Negros had to be in the back, and if a white person asked them to, the Negro had to move. In the boycott, the Negros sat wherever they wanted to and didn’t move when white people asked them to. After almost a year of doing this, the Supreme Court said the laws of segregation on the buses were not constitutional, and everyone could sit wherever they wanted to and no one had to give up their seat.
Even though during that time Dr. King was arrested, abused, and his house was bombed, he became like a leader of the Negros. After the boycott, he took Gandhi’s techniques and applied them to his protests. He gave many speeches, wrote several books, and traveled to many different places. He started a tremendous protest in Birmingham, Alabama that got the attention of the whole world. He also lead many peaceful marches, talked with John F. Kennedy, and became a leader for the Negros and a World Figure. He was the youngest person to be presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. However, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated. Most people living in Dr. King’s world would have done nothing, or just rolled with the punches and hope things get better. Why was he different? What made him want to change things? In Dr. King’s famous letter Letter from Birmingham Jail, he addresses why he and his fellow Negros are protesting for change. He tackles many of the problems of protesting the government presented to him, one of them being why the Negros don’t wait.
In response to this, Dr. King said, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights…. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people….then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” (Dr. King, Letter to Birmingham Jail) Dr. King and his fellow men were tired of waiting for change.
They were tired of waiting for the court to change things. They were tired of the unfair and cruel treatment they were getting from white people. They felt they had waited long enough, and the only way change was going to come about was if they went out and got it themselves, as Dr. King says in his letter. “ We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (Dr. King, Letter from Birmingham Jail) Since the Negros were being treated so unfairly, and hardly anyone was doing a thing about it, Dr. King felt he had to do something to stop it since no one else would. Even though he was breaking the law (the boycotts), and he knew he would be treated very badly and probably die, he was willing to do it to acquire change. Taking all this into consideration, would Dr. King be considered a civil disobedient? He saw a problem in the society he lived in: Negros were being treated unfairly. He advocated for change and worked for it, even if it meant breaking the law, being treated harshly, and ultimately, dying for the cause.
So just like Antigone and Esther, he would and should be considered a civil disobedient. Taking into account all of these people’s lives and actions, we come back to the questions at hand: is it ever right to break the law? Does anyone ever have a good reason to do so, and if so, what is it? It’s justifiable to disobey the law if you are trying to change society for the better, like Dr. King, or if you are trying to save or bring honor to someone you love, like Esther and Antigone. If one sees something wrong with their society and does nothing to fix it, or one sees someone they care about being treated unfairly and does nothing to help, the situation probably will not change if no one else is brave enough to speak. One has to be willing to make the change if one wants their situation to change for the better.