Just a passing mention of the term “civil disobedience” brings to mind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular and the Civil Rights Movement in particular. Consequently, thoughts are quickly moved to equate civil disobedience as “a Black thing.” For some this leads to a dismissive attitude toward the mention of civil disobedience. For others, it leads to a positive, yet narrow understanding of the concept. A White male from Massachusetts employed the use of civil disobedience long before the Civil War. Henry David Thoreau wrote about this concept in an 1849 essay entitled “On Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau was motivated by his opposition to the Mexican-American War and his opposition to African enslavement. At the time of his writing, African enslavement had no end in sight. The essay was published eight years prior to the infamous Dred Scott Decision and sixteen years prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In short, civil disobedience is a willful breaking of the law or the established rules in order to register one’s protest against the actions of those in power. It is essentially an unarmed protest accompanied by a willingness to go to jail for one’s beliefs. Thoreau advocated withholding taxes from a war mongering government which also provided for the enslavement of fellow human beings.
Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of India’s independence movement from Great Britain. Gandhi was influenced by Thoreau just as Dr. King was influenced by Thoreau and Gandhi. Dr. King added to civil disobedience the idea of nonviolent direct action. Gandhi referred to it as “Satyagraha” or “Soul Force.” King took civil disobedience on the offensive rather than simply offering passive resistance. Non-violent direct action was meant to force the issue at hand. This is what we witnessed on June 22, 2016 when members of the House of Representatives, led by Congressman John Lewis, began a 24-hour sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. These members of Congress were motivated by the lack of action over the issue of gun control in the wake of yet another mass shooting added to about 35,000 people each year dying from gun violence in the United States.
The House sit-in was interesting for a number of reasons. First, civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action are considered tools of those not in power. A member of Congress would be considered an insider and not an outsider in this dynamic. It was astounding to see insiders use the tool of outsiders to bring attention the injustice of inaction. Second, this dynamic somewhat flipped the script on Dr. King’s assessment of “just” and “unjust” laws. The current House of Representatives is dominated by the Republican Party which holds a commanding majority. Dr. King stated that one aspect of an unjust law is when a majority makes binding on a minority a law which it does not place on itself. Also, according to Dr. King, a law is unjust when the minority has no say in that law. Keep in mind that Dr. King was talking about outsiders and insiders. The House sit-in was carried out by insiders against insiders.
The third and most intriguing aspect of the House sit-in was seeing White members of the House of Representatives follow John Lewis’s lead. Often times when we witness these type protests, we only African-Americans standing alone in the streets. This was essentially the case in January 2001 when members of the Congressional Black Caucus staged a walk out in protest of the election of George W. Bush as President. On June 22, 2016, Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Latinos joined together in the House Sit-in. They did not break the law, but they did break House rules. These House rules had become the tool of Republicans to stifle debate and change. Democratic members of the House refused to give up the floor and shouted down House Speaker Paul Ryan. After, Ryan gaveled in a recess which caused the official House cameras and microphones preventing C-SPAN from televising the protest. Additional House rules were broken when House members broadcasted their protest via social media. This time around I felt as if a type of revolution was upon us. As I stated in my article last week, our ancestors had taught us how to know when the revolution comes because it would not be televised. It shall be interesting to see what happens when the House returns from its Fourth of July recess. The irony is not lost on this situation. The situation reeks of irony.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”