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Is Civil Disobedience Always Right?

Section from Howard Zinn's Declarations of Independence

There is a common argument against civil disobedience that goes like this: If I approve your act of civil disobedience, am I not honour bound to approve anyone's civil disobedience? If I approve Martin Luther King's violations of law, must I not also approve the Ku Klux Klan's illegal activities?
This argument comes from a mistaken idea about civil disobedience. The violation of law for the purpose of committing an injustice (like the Governor of Alabama preventing a black student from entering a public school or Colonel Oliver North buying arms for terrorists in Central America) is not defensible. Whether it was legal (as it was until 1954) or illegal (after 1954) to prevent black children from entering a school, it would still be wrong. The test of justification for an act is not its legality but its morality.
The principle I am suggesting for civil disobedience is not that we must tolerate all disobedience to law, but that we refuse an absolute obedience to law. The ultimate test is not law, but justice.
This troubles many people, because it gives them a heavy responsibility, to weigh social acts by their moral consequences. This can get complicated and requires a never - ending set of judgments about practices and policies. It is much easier to lie back and let the law make our moral judgments for us, whatever the law happens to say at the moment, whatever politicians have made into law on the basis of their interests, however the Supreme Court interprets the law at the moment. Yes, easier. But recall Jefferson's words: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
There is fear that this kind of citizens' judgment about when to obey and when to disobey the law will lead to terrible consequences. In the summer of I968 four people who called for resistance to the draft as a way of halting the war in Vietnam - Dr. Benjamin Spock, Reverend William Sloane Coffin, writer Mitchell Goodman, and Harvard student Michael Ferber - were sentenced to prison by Judge Francis Ford in Boston, who said, "Where law and order stops, obviously anarchy begins."
That is the same basically conservative impulse that once saw minimum wage laws as leading to Bolshevism, or bus desegregation leading to intermarriage, or communism in Vietnam leading to world communism. It assumes that all actions in a given direction rush toward the extreme, as if all social change takes place at the top of a steep, smooth hill, where the first push ensures a plunge to the bottom.
In fact an act of civil disobedience, like any move for reform, is more like the first push up a hill. Society's tendency is to maintain what has been. Rebellion is only an occasional reaction to suffering in human history; we have infinitely more instances of submission to authority than we have examples of revolt. What we should be most concerned about is not some natural tendency toward violent uprising, but rather the inclination of people faced with an overwhelming environment of injustice to submit to it.
Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide, and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.

By Howard Zinn

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