The philosophy behind civil disobedience goes back to classical and biblical sources. Perhaps its most influential exposition can be found in Henry David Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), in which he claims that the individual, who grants the state its power in the first place, must follow the dictates of conscience in opposing unjust laws. Thoreau's work had an enormous impact on Mohandas Gandhi and the techniques that he employed first to gain Indian rights in South Africa and later to win independence for India. Gandhi developed the notion of satyagraha [Sanskrit: holding to truth], acts of civil disobedience marked by Indian tradition and his own high moral standards and sense of self-discipline. Attracting a huge number of followers from the Indian public, Gandhi was able to use the technique as an effective political tool and play a key role in bringing about the British decision to end colonial rule of his homeland. His was one of the few relatively unqualified successes in the history of civil disobedience.
The philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience have been used by Quakers and other religious groups, the British labor movement, suffragists, feminists, adherents of prohibition, pacifists and other war resisters (see conscientious objector), supporters of the disabled, and a wide variety of other dissenters. In the United States, the most outstanding theoretician and practitioner of civil disobedience was civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the 1950s and 60s he achieved international fame by leading numerous peaceful marches, boycotts, and sit-ins. Like Gandhi, he was jailed several times. The beatings, mass arrests, and even killings of civil-rights demonstrators pledged to nonviolent civil disobedience were important factors in swaying public opinion and in the ultimate passage of new civil-rights legislation (see integration). Civil disobedience in the United States traditionally has been associated with those on the left of the political spectrum, as were most participants in the anti-Vietnam War movement, but toward the end of the 20th cent. the strategy also began to be employed by those on the right, for example, by those involved in confrontational but nonviolent antiabortion activities.
See G. Woodcock, Civil Disobedience (1966); C. Bay and C. C. Walker, Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice (1973, repr. 1999); D. R. Weber, ed., Civil Disobedience in America: A Documentary History (1978); J. De Nardo, Power in Numbers (1985); P. Harris, ed., Civil Disobedience (1989); H. A. Bedau, ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus (1991); P. Herngren, Paths of Resistance: the Practice of Civil Disobedience (1993); M. Randle, Civil Disobedience (1994); S. L. Carter, The Dissent of the Governed (1998); R. Bleiker, Popular Dissent, Human Agency, and Global Politics (2000).
Civil disobedience is the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government, or of an occupying power, without resorting to physical violence. It is one of the primary tactics of nonviolent resistance. In its most nonviolent form (known as ahimsa or satyagraha) it could be said that it is compassion in the form of respectful disagreement.
Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against unfair laws. It has been used in many well-documented nonviolent resistance movements in India (Gandhi's social welfare campaigns and campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American Civil Rights Movement, Jehovah's Witnesses' stand against the Nazis (1929-1945), and in peace movements worldwide. One of its earliest massive implementations was by Egyptians against the British occupation in the nonviolent 1919 Revolution.
The American author Henry David Thoreau pioneered the modern theory behind this practice in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government". The driving idea behind the essay was that of self-reliance, and how one is in morally good standing as long as one can "get off another man's back"; so one does not have to physically fight the government, but one must not support it or have it support one (if one is against it). This essay has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American War.
Thus, by the time Thoreau's lectures were first published under the title "Civil Disobedience," in 1866, four years after his death, the term had achieved fairly widespread usage.
For example, Mahatma Gandhi outlined the following rules, in the time when he was leading India in the struggle for Independence from the British Empire:
In a letter to P.K.Rao, Servants of India Society dated September 10, 1935, quoted in Louis Fischer's, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Part I, Chapter 11, pp. 87-88, Gandhi disputes that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted from the writings of Thoreau.
"The statement that I had derived my idea of Civil Disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay ... When I saw the title of Thoreau's great essay, I began to use his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even "Civil Disobedience" failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase "Civil Resistance."