Howard Zinn: The Role of Civil Disobedience in Promoting US Democracy

Historian Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus, Boston University, is author of A People's History of the United States.

There is a long and honorable tradition in the US of citizen actions of civil disobedience--that is, of technical violations of law to serve important social values. Either at the time these actions took place, or later, in the judgment of history, they became recognized as justified because they served a vital purpose for society. What follows is a list--far from complete--of such events:

1. The acts of civil disobedience in the period preceding the Revolutionary War are quite well known, but often ignored when contemporary acts are judged, not by standards of justice, but by narrow technical standards of war. The various oppressive British laws were disobeyed by colonists, in protest against the harshness of British rule: there were demonstrations against the Stamp Act of 1765, there were violations of the Tea Act, including the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor, known as the Boston Tea Party.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, requiring the return of escaped slaves to their masters, was violated repeatedly. In 1830, for instance, an escaped slave brought into federal court was rescued by anti-slavery people and set free. The people who committed that act of civil disobedience were not prosecuted, despite their violation of the law, because it was recognized that the moral end of their action superseded the technicality of breaking the law.

3. There were many violations of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which groups of white and black abolitionists rescued, or attempted to rescue, escaped slaves. They took place in Christiana, Pennsylvania, Syracuse, New York, Boston, Massachusetts, and Oberlin, Ohio, among other places. In several of these instances, juries refused to find the defendants guilty, judging their technical violation of the law to be superseded by a higher moral objective.

4. The rights of working people in the US--the eight hour day, decent wages, safe working conditions--were achieved by many decades of struggle, including violations of trespassing laws and other statutes. The occupation of factories in 1936 and 1937--the famous "sit-down strikes"--were illegal, but resulted in the recognition of unions and the betterment of working conditions.

5. In more recent times, the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is well known. Not only were local segregation laws violated, but when people engaged in "sit-ins" in 1960 and 1961 to protest racial segregation, they were in violation of recognized federal law, as enunciated in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. The nation soon recognized that these violations of law were honorable, and that punishment of people seeking to support the principles of the Declaration of Independence was wrong.

6. Also in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement against the Vietnam War involved countless acts of civil disobedience, but these violations were recognized as playing a crucial role in bringing that disastrous war to an end, and thus saving many lives.

In short, American history sustains the idea that civil disobedience--the violation of laws on behalf of human rights, against starvation and sickness--should be distinguished from criminal disobedience, where a law is violated for individual gain. Civil disobedience therefore is not to be punished because it is a technical violation of law, but to be honored as part of the American tradition, enhancing democracy.