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Yale University Press
Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition

Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition

by Lewis PerryLewis Perry
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A masterful exploration of the practice of civil disobedience in America from the nation’s earliest days to the present

The distinctive American tradition of civil disobedience stretches back to pre-Revolutionary War days and has served the purposes of determined protesters ever since. This stimulating book examines the causes that have inspired civil disobedience, the justifications used to defend it, disagreements among its practitioners, and the controversies it has aroused at every turn.
Tracing the origins of the notion of civil disobedience to eighteenth-century evangelicalism and republicanism, Lewis Perry discusses how the tradition took shape in the actions of black and white abolitionists and antiwar protesters in the decades leading to the Civil War, then found new expression in post–Civil War campaigns for women’s equality, temperance, and labor reform. Gaining new strength and clarity from explorations of Thoreau’s essays and Gandhi’s teachings, the tradition persisted through World War II, grew stronger during the decades of civil rights protest and antiwar struggles, and has been adopted more recently by anti-abortion groups, advocates of same-sex marriage, opponents of nuclear power, and many others. Perry clarifies some of the central implications of civil disobedience that have become blurred in recent times—nonviolence, respect for law, commitment to democratic processes—and throughout the book highlights the dilemmas faced by those who choose to violate laws in the name of a higher morality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300124590
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/22/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Lewis Perry is John Francis Bannon, S.J., Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Saint Louis University. His previous books have dealt with anarchism, antislavery movements, American intellectual life, and moral problems in history. He lives in St. Louis, MO.

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By Lewis Perry


Copyright © 2013 Lewis Perry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-12459-0


The Drama of Civil Disobedience

This book examines the practice, justification, and criticism of civil disobedience in the United States from its pre-revolutionary backgrounds to the present. A distinctive American tradition of civil disobedience originated in the eighteenth century, took shape in the antebellum decades, and persisted, and sometimes flourished, from that time forward. Although it has been most clearly discussed in the twentieth century, especially in the early 1970s, changing attitudes toward law and government may have blurred some of its once-central implications, such as nonviolence, respect for law, and commitment to democratic processes. At the same time, awareness of the tradition among activists who practice civil disobedience has never been stronger. As the tradition is likely to endure, one of my hopes in writing this book is that clarification of its origins and history will contribute to further discussion and public understanding. Thus, the book does more than narrate the history and trace connections between periods and movements. It highlights some recurrent problems as experienced by those who have violated laws in the name of a higher morality and as observed by critics concerned that any law breaking undermines public order. Especially, it focuses often on the underlying paradoxical feeling of wanting to respect the law and institutions of civil society while being unable to acquiesce in or ignore immoralities in those laws and institutions.

Civil disobedience appears in the news almost daily. In springtime the stories often originate on campuses. These may concern local issues. In 2001, for example, Penn State students staged a sit-in and disrupted the Blue-White football scrimmage in order to "call attention" to death threats against a black student leader. Wesleyan students, angry that a popular teacher was being let go, conducted a hunger strike and then occupied the university president's office. Harvard students took over a campus building for three weeks to press the university to pay a "living wage" to janitors and other workers. In 2005 a similar sit-in and hunger strike took place at Washington University in St. Louis and in 2006 at the University of Miami. In 2006, protesters from Evergreen State staged a "die-in" as part of an effort to delay the departure of a navy cargo ship and "call attention" to an immoral war in Iraq. Of course, civil disobedience is by no means restricted to campuses in springtime. In recent years protests against abortion clinics, police brutality, nuclear armaments, marriage laws, and world trade policies have featured dramatic and well-publicized acts of civil disobedience. These are late instances of a long-standing tradition, and even amid heightened concern about terrorist threats there has been relatively little public talk of suppressing Americans' recourse to sit-ins and other expressions of civil disobedience. If the past is any guide, there may in the future be greater criticism, more repression, and new lulls in the practice of civil disobedience. But it seems likely that civil disobedience will continue to have an important place in American public life.

Contemporary disobedients (and journalists who comment on their actions) show awareness of the tradition when they refer to precedents in previous eras. In spring 2004 advocates of same-sex marriage compared events in New Paltz, New York, and San Francisco to the woman suffrage protests during World War I, bus boycotts of 1955, and lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. For years, anti-abortion leaders have called themselves the "new abolitionists" and linked their blockades of Planned Parenthood centers with abolitionist defiance of laws supporting slavery. In the 1960s the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also called its campaigners against segregation in the rural South the "new abolitionists." In addition, SNCC's actions had links to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)'s sit-down strikes of 1936–37 as well as to the free speech fights and "jail, no bail" tactics of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a generation earlier. In 1948 A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) pointed to the Underground Railroad as a forerunner, proving that nonviolent civil disobedience was not alien to American society or black culture. Leaders of the woman suffrage movement in the 1870s appealed to memories of the defiant deeds of antislavery heroes. Abolitionists, for their part, held memories of Quaker and Baptist civil disobedience against established churches in the eighteenth century. Nearly everyone raises the Boston Tea Party as a precedent for civil disobedience, and though we will find the analogy faulty in some respects, its repetition signifies a belief in a national heritage of resistance to unjust laws that underlies the civil disobedience tradition. Though defiance of law is an important part of this heritage, it is not so much a heritage of violent rebellion as one of moderate protest.

The creation and continuation of a tradition through lulls and periods of intensity is a major subject of this book. But there are important contrasts to note and recurrent disagreements to understand. A look, at the outset, at two fairly recent events will identify themes that will prove of recurrent interest throughout these pages. Both events occurred at Gallaudet University, the nation's foremost educational institution for the deaf, sometimes called the "Deaf Mecca," in Washington, D.C., and both had to do with conflict over the selection of the university's president. In March 1988, when trustees, meeting at a downtown hotel, named a president who, like all her predecessors, was not deaf, angry students, who had expected the choice of one of two deaf candidates, marched to the hotel in protest. On several occasions during the week that followed, joined by alumni and students from other schools for the deaf and by representatives of organizations for the deaf, protesters closed down the campus by forming human chains and deflating the tires of cars and buses in front of the gates. They held numerous rallies, won faculty support, met with congressmen on the board of trustees (Gallaudet receives substantial funding from the U.S. government), and received much attention from the news media. Before the week was out, the new president had withdrawn, the "Deaf President Now" (DPN) movement had prevailed, and I. King Jordan, a professor of psychology and dean of arts and sciences, was named Gallaudet's eighth president. Also, the board accepted the resignation of its chair, agreed to increase the numbers of deaf trustees to at least 50 percent, and granted amnesty for all student demonstrators. In short, the victory was complete. In the following years Jordan proved to be a notably successful educational leader—raising the endowment, adding new programs and buildings, and serving as a symbol inspiring deaf persons around the world to accept no limits to their aspirations.

The DPN movement drew on parallels with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Marchers carried a banner to the Capitol that read "I Have a Dream," and protesters sang the anthems of the earlier movement, "We Shall Overcome" and "We Shall Not Be Moved." Jordan has been called a Martin Luther King for deaf people, and the 1988 triumph has been called a Selma or Stonewall for the deaf—that is, the start of a new era in achieving civil rights for the deaf and, some would add, all persons with disabilities. Jordan himself spoke of such milestones in the history of civil rights as "Rosa Parks' refusal to relinquish her seat on a bus, women suffragettes demanding the right to vote, and Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech" and added, "I honestly believe that the success of DPN ranks among these memorable moments." These events became central to the historical memory of the university, recorded and celebrated on its Internet site and in a book by Gallaudet professors published by the university. Some of the most influential writings on nonviolence and civil disobedience depict the creation of a "beloved community" where differences are reconciled, justice achieved, and people progress through cooperation. DPN often sounds like a realization of such a vision of overcoming differences for the common good. One of the protest leaders, the Arizonan Tim Rarus, recalled how he received help in hotwiring a bus and blocking a gate from a student who, though deaf, was "oral" and not proficient in American sign language (ASL) and who, to boot, was long-haired, wore a black leather jacket, and came from New York City:"I tell this story because before DPN, I was not one to interact with deaf people who were not culturally deaf like myself. Deaf people have a history of fighting among themselves. Yet, during DPN, we all worked together for that common goal: a deaf president. Never mind the mode of communication our president would choose or his background, as long as he was deaf. And together we accomplished that goal."

In May 2006, Gallaudet's trustees announced that Jane K. Fernandes, a professor and administrator at the university, would be Jordan's successor and Gallaudet's first deaf woman president. The announcement set off angry protests resembling a reenactment of DPN, but this time no one could claim that the confrontation unified the campus community. To outside observers, the reasons for conflict were confusing. Every finalist for the presidency was deaf. Protesting students voiced complaints about Fernandes's personality and administrative style and about a selection process in which their views, though heard, went unheeded. Some faulted Fernandes's fluency in ASL and claimed her strong interest in technological advances—cochlear implants and improved hearing aids—threatened what they called "Deaf culture." Students set up a tent city on campus and, with support from some alumni, teachers, and activists in the deaf community, protested the trustees' choice. The excitement subsided after commencement, when many students left campus, but a summer's respite did nothing to cool off angry emotions.

In the fall, a coalition of students renewed opposition to the new president. During an embattled October, tents went up again, demonstrations resumed, the main classroom building was occupied, and most normal activities on campus were interrupted or shut down. The extent of student support for and opposition to the protests was bitterly contested, but marches and rallies drew thousands of participants.Members of the football team blocked the gates to the campus. The volleyball team sat in the president's office. The administration's response—calling in police, dispatching heavy equipment (a front-end loader) to remove the tents—often seemed brutal. The arrest of 134 protesters, who "went limp" as they were carried off, on"black Friday"(October 13) gave the movement a new demand: as in 1988, there should be no penalties or reprisals. The protesters, communicating electronically through group e-mails, hand-held messagers, and laptops, generally projected a wholesome, peaceful image of themselves. "Wear Black Tomorrow," instructed Elisa Abenchuchan, one of the first and most influential bloggers, in preparation for Friday, October 26:

Dress all in black.

7 AM: Be at the 6th street gate to do a human tunnel and greet people

8 AM: Hunger strikers will do a sit-down at the President's Office

9:59 AM: Drop what you're doing wherever you are and drop on the floor for 10 minutes

Noon: Meet at the front gate—and create a human chain around College Hall

5 PM: Those arrested meet at the front gate to march to the President's House

8 PM: Community meeting....

Only one of these actions seemed to require a bit of explanation. Abenchuchan gave a little more detail on what was called for at 9:59. "Sit down and relax" was her message.

For the past three weeks, Gallaudet and its community has been thrown in disarray. Often, it feels like people on all sides have been subjected to frustrations similar to the Chinese water torture method. But, here's something we can all do to address this.

If you are for a better, healthy, united Gallaudet, do this. At 10am on Friday, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, drop everything and sit on the floor for 10 minutes. Sit for better educational standards. Sit for social justice. Sit for unity for Gallaudet. Sit for the future of Gallaudet. Our future.

What seems peaceful to one person may strike another as coercive. And one person's unity may be another's divisiveness. Consider a flyer that Abenchuchan reproduced a few days earlier: "Call Jane Fernandes tomorrow!" it read, and it gave the president-designate's phone number. "Ask for her resignation!" it continued. "We want her phone ringing off the hook all day!" It concluded with a postscript: "Important: We are peaceful protestors. When you call, PLEASE be pleasant. No swearing or crude language. Kindly ask Jane to resign in the best interest of Gallaudet University and the Deaf Community worldwide."

Despite considerable criticism of the protesters' harassment of those who did not join them, there was no doubting the growing strength of the opposition to Fernandes. On October 16, the faculty by a large majority called for Fernandes's removal and voted no confidence in the board of trustees. They also voted no confidence in Jordan, whose standing on campus steadily eroded as he staunchly supported Fernandes. At the end of October, the trustees backed down, "terminated" the new president, and prepared to find an interim president and launch a new search. Exultant protesters greeted the news by shredding and burning an image of Fernandes. Some commentators called this an expression of "hatred bordering on very serious mental illness," but defenders of the protests denied any intent to humiliate her. It was nothing personal; "it was to close her down, more of a symbolic thing." Martin Luther King, in the opinion of one supporter, would have been proud of the commitment to nonviolence. It is hard to think of any previous campus protest in which the demonstrators succeeded so completely in winning—"win" was a much-used word, in fact—their demands for a large share in campus governance.

They won a strong voice, but no amnesty. In December the administration announced that those who shut down the campus would in fact face punishment through campus disciplinary proceedings. Still, some observers were shocked that the board by ousting Fernandes had "caved in" to "mob rule." The trustees' chair and Senator John McCain, who served as a congressional representative, resigned from the board. In contrast with the ebullient feelings of unity and progress following the DPN protests of 1988, thirteen university administrators addressed the community on November 6 on the personal despair and shared horror they had passed through and their hope to join with others in a healing process.

Throughout the media reports on these events and the profusion of blogs documenting the feelings of demonstrators and their critics, a recurrent issue was civil disobedience. "Nothing could enrage the entire Deaf world more than ordering the arrests of peaceful protesters who are practicing noble acts of civil disobedience," warned one blogger. Anyone who prevented students from attending classes deserved their punishment, others replied. One blogger insisted that the protesters' "commitment and dedication alone" should suffice to gain respect in a city that is "populated by people who won civil rights through civil disobedience." To another writer, such a comparison with the civil rights movement was "insulting to black folks ... and their REAL struggles." Could anyone point to "hearing only" water fountains and lunch counters? When Fernandes described the campus situation as "anarchy and terrorism," a group called Stakeholders for a United Gallaudet replied: "Civil disobedience activities on campus have been quiet and peaceful. Laws are not being broken. Peaceful candlelight vigils by the faculty are not terrorism. Students sitting on the campus walls and sleeping in tents is not terrorism. Comparing your students to the words of 9/11 is reprehensible. There is no terrorism nor anarchy at Gallaudet University. There is only a peaceful protest." Discussion of civil disobedience almost never reached a general or theoretical level of justifying or analyzing what was legitimate or why.

Excerpted from CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE by Lewis Perry. Copyright © 2013 Lewis Perry. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

1 The Drama of Civil Disobedience 1

2 A Heritage of Civilly Disobedient Acts 25

3 Slavery and Disobedience 59

4 Conflicts of Law in the Age of Reform 94

5 "Wild, Unaccountable Things": Civil Disobedience and Woman Suffrage 126

6 Beyond Submissiveness: From Temperance Crusade to Sit-Down Strikes 157

7 Adapting a Philosophy of Nonviolence 181

8 The Civil Rights Revolution 212

9 The Sixties and the Great Tradition of Social Protest 247

10 The Day of the Demonstrations Isn't Over 284

Notes 315

Index 383

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