Fight the power

Civil disobedience extols conscience above law

Jake Highton is a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno and an occasional curmudgeon at the Reno News & Review.
There's a cool annotated version of “Civil Disobedience” at

Sometimes one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.

“A Testament of Hope,” writings and speeches of Martin Luther King

Henry David Thoreau, little known and unsung, is one of the greatest American heroes, far greater than soldiers cited for bravery or generals who triumph on the battlefield.

Thoreau is worthy of being “canonized” for two works alone: “Civil Disobedience” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Both are in the wonderful American tradition of dissent. As Thoreau noted in Walden: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.” Or, in “Civil Disobedience”: “There is little virtue in the action of masses of men.”

In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau asked, “Must the citizen ever for a moment resign his conscience to the legislator?” His answer was thunderous: no!

“I think we should be men first and subjects afterward,” he wrote. “It is not desirable to cultivate respect for the law so much as for the right. Law never made men a whit more just. And by means of their respect for it even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Thoreau added: If the law requires you to be an agent of injustice “then I say break the law.” That’s why he defended Brown with moral outrage and indignation.

Brown broke the law in 1859 with an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, hoping for an uprising of 4 million slaves. He thus obeyed a higher command: his conscience. Slavery was wrong. It must be abolished at once.

“I would rather see the statue of Captain Brown at the Massachusetts state house than that of any other man I know,” Thoreau declared. “We talk about representative government but what a monster of a government it is where the noblest faculties of the mind and of the whole heart are not represented.”

Namely: John Brown.

Thoreau, calling him “a sublime spectacle” and “an angel of light,” asked: “When were the good and brave ever in a majority?” He agreed with Brown: “a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder.” Brown said his “rifles and revolvers were employed in a righteous cause,” a cause expressing his “sympathy with the oppressed and wronged.”

Brown presciently concluded that Civil War was the only way “the Negro question” would be resolved. He knew too the truth in Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle”: “What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice?”

Even the Great Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, initially thought that Brown was going too far to take action to free the slaves. Garrison thought words were enough. As he wrote, “I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not retreat a single inch. AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Brown knew better. Abolishment of slavery must come about through deeds, not words.

Birmingham rebellion

Martin Luther King, as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, was greatly impressed by “Civil Disobedience.” He came to the same conclusion as Thoreau. Words were not enough. He realized you had to break the law even if it meant going to jail in order to smash the chains of segregation.

The rebellion began with Rosa Parks in 1955. A bus driver in Montgomery, Ala., ordered Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. She refused. She said she was tired of being treated as an unequal human being.

The bus driver had her arrested under Alabama law. Her pastor, Martin Luther King, was so incensed he launched the Montgomery bus boycott. The civil rights movement had begun.

Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent satyagraha (“soul force”), King in 1960 lauded Southern black college students for their sit-ins at lunch counters while facing “hoodlums, police guns, tear gas and jail sentences.”

In 1963 he wrote the moving “A Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” He excoriated the “vicious lynch mobs and hate–filled policemen who curse, kick, brutalize and even kill.” He denounced white and colored signs in the South. He deplored the indignity of being called “nigger” or “boy.” He noted “a degenerating sense of ’nobodyness.’”

King’s words resounded with cries for freedom. Freedom rides. Freedom trains. Freedom marches. He wanted to free blacks from racism and whites from the burden of racism.

King reminded Americans that by denying freedom to blacks they had “left the house of their great heritage and strayed into a far country of segregation and discrimination. In the midst of all your material wealth you prove spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of the world.”

King gave his best-known speech, “I Have a Dream,” during the March on Washington in 1963. It was the greatest demonstration for freedom in the nation’s history.

“We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” King said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, black and white, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Then those marvelous, repetitive, rolling cadences:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ’We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers.”

Most Americans came to accept King’s dream. But many could not accept King as a social critic, declaring that he should stick to civil rights. Not so. His social criticism was also powerful.

He rightly indicted America’s Vietnam War. He flayed the nation’s “spiritual death” in spending more on the military than on “programs of social uplift.” He denounced capitalism. He deplored the gap between the rich and the poor.

King’s social criticism is an old, old American tradition.

Mark Twain, outraged by U.S. suppression of the Filipino revolt, declared that America ought to paint the white stripes on its flag black and replace the stars with the pirate skull and cross-bones. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony led demonstrations for women’s right to vote, going to jail for voting illegally in 1872.

Margaret Sanger advocated birth control early in the 20th century, opening the nation’s first birth control clinic. She was driven to advocate birth control because her mother endured 18 pregnancies in 22 years. Bob La Follette, Wisconsin senator, deplored the invasion of Nicaragua in 1927. He described it as “harsh, bullying, an unjustifiable action setting Central and South American countries against us.”

In 1946 socialist Norman Thomas lamented the fact that 3,200 Americans were jailed for the “crime” of conscientious objection. Pullman car unionist Philip Randolph scored Jim Crow as an “unmitigated evil.” He pointed out the absurdity of a segregated army. Justice Douglas decried the manufactured Red Scare in the 1950s, spawning character assassination and rampant fear.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, circa 1902.

In our day, President Obama’s treatment of whistleblower Pfc. Bradley Manning is unconscionable. For nearly three years Manning has been held in a military prison, subject to torture and other inhumane treatment. Locked up naked in a cage. It’s one more blot on the American escutcheon.

Manning’s crime? Supplying a trove of documents to the world, documents that are no threat to national security but a gross embarrassment to America. The government charge of “aiding the enemy” is patently absurd. He merely wanted to provoke “worldwide discussion, debate and reform.” The world rewarded him with much discussion and debate. Reform, alas, is beyond the capacity of the U.S. government.

“His repressive treatment is one of the disgraces of Obama’s first term,” Ed Pilkington of the UK Guardian declared. “Obama not only defended Manning’s treatment but also as commander in-chief of court-martial judges improperly decreed his guilt when he asserted that he broke the law.”

Manning is a classic whistleblower. The public appreciates his leak of astonishing examples of systematic U.S. subversion of worldwide democracy, including killings and atrocities. Governments do not appreciate such candor.

David Coombs, lawyer defending Manning at the military trial in Fort Meade, Maryland, pointed out that his client disclosed the documents, not as “a reckless act to undermine national security,” but as an “act of conscience designed to expose government misdeeds and defend the public’s right to know.”

Governments abroad react the same way with another great leaker, Julian Assange. The British consider him an “enemy of the state.” Assange released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables showing U.S. war crimes, collusion with death squads in Iraq, lies of U.S. allies, and spying on U.N. officials.

U.S. politicians and right-wingers want Assange designated a terrorist. An absurdity. But nothing is absurd to a U.S. government determined to conceal embarrassment.

First Amendment rights of Manning and Assange are being denied. As so often in hypocritical America, free speech has its limits. The government tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds of violating national security. Fortunately, even a conservative Supreme Court saw through that charade in its 1973 decision.

Professor Howard Zinn supported civil rights while teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta. He was fired by Boston University for supporting striking union workers on his campus. He gave a defense of civil disobedience while attacking the Vietnam War, declaring that it was essential to break unjust laws in order to achieve fundamental rights.

Boxer Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Army in 1967 during the Vietnam War. He declared, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

Most Americans were outraged. So-called liberal columnist Tom Wicker denounced Ali as “painfully warped in spirit.” Sports columnist Red Smith “smelled” the “stench emanating from the induction center.” The FBI tailed and wiretapped Ali. The World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his heavyweight title.

States refused to let him fight. In Nevada, Gov. Paul Laxalt denied an Ali-Floyd Patterson fight with a phony rationale: It would be a mismatch. The Johnson administration stripped Ali of his passport to prevent him from fighting overseas.

At the trial for “refusal to submit to induction,” a jury deliberated 20 minutes before sending him to prison for five years. In 1967, his peak as a great champion, Ali was barred from the ring.

“It was a marvelous demonstration of the value of civil disobedience [in publicizing injustice] and an inspiration to our generation—particularly to those soldiers and sailors who opposed the Vietnam War,” said Dennis Myers, news editor of the Reno News & Review. Myers was one of those soldiers.

Glorious court dissents

Despite the many terrible decisions by the Supreme Court throughout history, some great dissents have illustrated what it means to be an American.

It does not mean wearing flag pins, flying flags on pickup trucks or draping houses with huge American flags. It means dissents as in In re Yamashita (1946).

In that case the court upheld the hanging of a Japanese general ordered by a military commission, declaring that the findings of a military panel were unreviewable. Justice Frank Murphy dissented because the general was denied a fair trial.

“No exception is made to those who are accused of war crimes or those who possess the status of an enemy belligerent. Indeed, such an exception would be contrary to the philosophy of human rights that makes the Constitution the great living document that it is.

“The immutable rights of the individual belong not alone to the members of those nations that excel on the battlefield or that subscribe to democratic ideology. They belong to every person in the world, victor or vanquished, whatever may be his race, color or beliefs. They rise above every status or outlawry. They survive any popular passion or frenzy of the moment.

“While people in other lands may not share our beliefs as to due process and the dignity of the individual, we are not free to give effect to our emotions in reckless disregard for the rights of others. We live under a Constitution which is the embodiment of all the high hopes and aspirations of the new world.”

In Olmstead v. U.S. (1928) the court upheld wiretapping, but Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis dissented. Holmes declared it would be better for “some criminals to escape than that the government should play an ignoble part.”

Brandeis in his dissent declared, “The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

“Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. It teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes a lawbreaker it breeds contempt for the law.”

After his horrible ruling in Schenck v. U.S., Holmes came to his senses with a marvelous dissent six months later in Abrams v. U.S. (1919). He deplored the 20-year prison sentence for publishing two harmless leaflets. He pointed out that the defendants were punished “not for what the indictment alleges but for the creed that they avow.”

Holmes concluded with a ringing declaration of free speech: “We should be eternally vigilant against any attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.”

Justice Harlan F. Stone was the sole dissenter in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) when the court upheld a school flag-salute statute. The Jehovah’s Witnesses objected because to them saluting the flag was worshiping a graven image.

“It is a long step and one which I am unable to take to the position that government may, as a supposed educational measure, compel public affirmations which violate religious conscience,” Stone wrote. “The very essence of liberty is the freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say. This seems to me no more than the surrender of the constitutional protection of the liberty of small minorities to the popular will.”

Stone was proved right just three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette when Justice Robert H. Jackson made his magnificent statement about the Bill of Rights:

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly may not be submitted to a vote.”

In Zorach v. Clauson (1952) the court upheld a New York public school board policy of allowing students released time to attend religious classes. Justice William O. Douglas, to his shame, wrote the majority opinion: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

In a sizzling dissent, Justice Jackson answered Douglas:

• “The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion it will cease to be free for religion.”

• “The wall which the court was professing to erect between church and state has become warped and twisted.”

It is dissents like these that reflect the deeply ingrained conscience of Americans who demand freedom, equality and justice for all.