Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement of Blacks in the US

Angela Davis and Assata Shakur


 Abstract: The aim of this paper is to compare the concept of civil disobedience with the actions of the Civil Rights Movement, from Dr. Martin Luther King to the Black Panther Movement. It has been a difficult task to find the similarities and the differences between the two visions of disobedience. I’ve tried to deal with a sensitive topic, especially through the lives of two strong women: Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. Women who dedicated their lives to the cause of being revolutionaries.



 The concept of civil disobedience is very important, as a tool to interpret mass movements of the XX century. The academic debate focused on this concept trying to categorize the different types of social actions occurring worldwide (civil or criminal).

This paper is an attempt to reflect upon the theoretical definition of civil disobedience and its application to reality. In particular, I am interested in the adherence of this concept to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of the years ‘60s and ‘70s. In this period civil rights protests grew in scale and intensity, firstly adopting peaceful actions, eventually shifting to violent acts.

I’ve started the paper analysing the thoughts of several important philosophers of political theory, such as Arendt, Habermas, Rawls and Toqueville[2]. Indeed, those philosophers have given their own definition of civil disobedience as a public act, premeditated and announced, but most importantly as a non-violent act.

I will ten try to compare this definition to the real facts of occurred in the Civil Rights Movement, firstly through the ideology developed by Martin Luther King and then its concrete application by the Black Panther Movement and its militants.



The Civil Rights Movement started through non-violent actions and demonstrations, but evolved in a more violent way. Indeed, the beginnings were influenced by the “peaceful” ideology developed by Martin Luther King and his wise guide. After his death, there was too much anger and the situation became worse: racial tensions exploded in violent episodes.

However, in order to better understand the ideology behind the actions and the thoughts by the Black Panther Movement and its activists, such as Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, we should keep in mind which was the situation where they came from.

That is why I believe the following letter, written by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, could be very important for our analysis. It explains the dramatic situation and hostility that black people had to face day by day, especially in Alabama. Alabama was, and still is today, one of the most conservative and reactionist countries of the USA. Angela Davis used to live in Birmingham and grew up feeling that frightening and racial atmosphere that is perfectly described in this letter.

The following extracts taken from this famous letter, are used here to mark the comparison that can be made from the Civil Rights Movement, under King’s guide, to the concept of civil disobedience.

“I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative”.

Even though Luther King was rather against demonstration and direct acts, he wrote a justification for that, as black people were left with no other choices, no other alternatives to achieve some kind of social and political attention. His vision of a peaceful action of demonstration can be truly considered as civil disobedience.

Indeed, according to Habermas: “civil disobedience is a morally justified protest which may not be founded only on private convictions or individual self-interest; it is a public act which, as a rule is announced in advance and which the police can control as it occurs; it includes the premeditated transgression of legal norms without calling into question obedience to the rule of law as a whole; it demands the readiness to accept the legal consequences of the transgression of those norms; the infraction by which civil disobedience is expressed has an exclusively symbolic character – hence is derived the restriction to nonviolent means of protest”.

Moreover, the definition of civil disobedience given by Rawls refers to “a public act, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government by appealing to the sense of justice of the majority, all within the limits of fidelity to law”.

My opinion is that a change is very far from being symbolic, a change is real and it has to be concrete in order to bring some improvement to the society, or to the minorities which are protesting. I believe that talking about morality and symbolism is really far from the reality that people face everyday.

On the other hand, Hannah Arendt gave an interesting shade to the concept, connecting it to minorities, while disconnecting from conscience and morality. “We must distinguish between conscientious objectors and civil disobedients. The arguments raised in defense of individual conscience and the conditions prescribing the limitations on its rights – “the willingness to accept whatever punishment the law might impose” – are inadequate when applied to civil disobedience. Civil disobedients are in fact organized minorities, bound together by their decision to take a stand against an assumed majority”.

We can find this concept also in the words written by King, who underlined the difference between just and unjust law and its implications on minority groups.

“We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that justice too long delayed is justice denied. We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote.”

According again to Rawls, “an act of civil disobedience is justified when it opposes serious infringements of the first principle of justice, the principle of equal liberty, and violations of the principle of fair equality of opportunity”.

According again to Hannah Arendt: “civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens have become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon”. “Civil disobedience can be tuned to necessary and desirable change or to necessary and desirable preservation or restoration of the status quo.”

“There is all the difference in the world between the criminal’s avoiding public eye and the civil disobedient’s taking the law into his own hands in open defiance”.

“The civil disobedient, though he is usually dissenting from the majority, acts in the name and for sake of a group; he defies the law and the established authorities on the ground of basic dissent, and not because he as an individual wishes to make an excemption of himself and to get away with it.” “The law can indeed stabilize and legalize change once it has occurred, but the change itself is always the result of extra-legal action. The whole body of labor legislation was preceded by decades of frequently very violent disobedience of what ultimately proved to be obsolete laws”. Hannah Arendt wanted to stress the tragical and dangerous inability of the law to enforce change and progress. In her “Reflections on Civil Disobedience” she quotes Toqueville, who “predicted  almost a hundred and fifty years ago that the most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises not from slavery, whose abolition he foresaw, but from the presence of black population upon its territory.” Indeed because “these people had never been included in the original consensus universalis of the American republic”. Arendt also considered the black organizations in right of disobeying, even considering the radical fringe of the movement, which “without them would probably have withered away a long ago.” The same said Celikates in his article on the Constellation: “behind Martin Luther King, Jr. there was Malcolm X; besides or rather behind Gandhi a variety of decidedly more radical political actors. In some of the most prominent instances, the success of civil disobedience seems to depend at least in part on the deliberate threat, provocation, or use of violence by one group or othe. […] it is not difficult to appreciate that the success of the US Civil Rights Movement depended, again at least in part, on the violence its “non-violent” protests have (intentionally and for strategic reasons) provoked on the part of the state’s security apparatus”. In this case, the non-violent ideology can be seen as appealing to the symbolic side of the civil disobedience, while the real violent and direct action is the strategy behind it.

“Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of them, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiations.”

Liberal thinkers on civil disobedience call the need for actions and control by the police, to enforce the rule of law, even though it is that legal code that is contested and wrong for the treatment of the minorities protesting.

“You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise for the police department.”

So, how was it possible that people were not going to protest violently, when it was the police in primis that was acting brutally and against human rights?

“We must see the need of having non-violent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. We therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

“You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister.”

King talks about non-violent actions as a way to create a sort of tension and an “healthy crisis”, in order to gain power in negotiation and representation. However, violent actions mostly took place after his death. People saw that this way of dealing peacefully with segregation issues was not appreciated and considered by the white power structure. Thus, black people started to understand that they had to do something different. They started to feel that they had to answer to what the police was already doing to them. They had to react upon injustices they were facing everyday.

Indeed, Hannah Arendt talked about violent disobedience in these terms: “While civil disobedience may be considered as an indication of a significant loss of the law’s authority, criminal disobedience is nothing more than the inevitable consequence of a disastrous erosion of police competence and power.”

Eventually, “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”

King talked about “getting rid of the system” as a necessity. Changing the society in order to have just laws, change the system and its structure to apply morality and justice for all. It is clear that this basic concept of the need for a rebuilding of the actual society would have implied some sort of radical action. As long as the community was not considered and brutally forced to accept the rules.

I believe the “urge for freedom” came out to be violent because the answer to this was too delayed by the institutions.

Angela Davis and Assata Shakur
Angela Davis and Assata Shakur


The original name of the organization was Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in 1966 in Oakland by two students called Huey Percy  Newton and Bobby George Seale. One year after the assassination of the radical activist Malcolm X. At the beginnings, the purpose was to protect African American from the brutality of the police.

The organization then became the socialist Black Panther Party we know, whose aim was to subvert the system and destroy the capitalist, colonialist economic and political structure which had been exploiting African Americans and excluding them from the rest of the society.

In order to proceed with the analysis, it is necessary to understand the ideology and the feelings behind this Movement. These concepts are contained in the “What we want now” program  published in 1967 and developed through ten basic rights that the Movement wanted to achieve.

We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community. We want full employment for our people. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every men an employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living. We want and end to robbery by the Capitalists of our black community. We want decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings. We want all black men to be exempt from military service. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people. We want freedom for all black men held in Federal, State, Country and City Prisons and Jails. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in Court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace”.

Indeed, they started their action from point 7 about ending police brutality. They established a system of armed patrol cars trailing police cars through the slums of Oakland. Whenever black men or women were stopped by police, armed Panthers would be on the scene, making sure that their constitutional rights were not violated. They opened their headquarter and in 1967 marched into the San Francisco airport to escort Betty Shabazz. This early phase of the movement was within the law. Then the militants started to grow in number and gained much more importance, becoming a national organization. In order to solve critical community problems, the Panthers adopted a “serve the people” program. The community programs included free breakfast for school children, free medical care, liberation schools, free transportation to visit relatives in prison and for senior citizens, free shoes and clothing, student action committees, political education classes for adults, petition campaigns for community control of the police, voter registration assistance and legal aid.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security”.

Anyway, during the ‘70s the Party began to suffer a deep internal crisis. There were indeed two factions applying for two different methods of actions: Cleaver called for more emphasis on confrontational activity, while Newton, Seale and Hilliard’s leadership preferred legal actions, such as community service programs, spoken and printed propaganda and conventions.

Furthermore, external forces had come out such as the undercover activity of the FBI COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program Against Domestic Dissent), local law enforcement actions (only in 1969, 384 Panthers were arrested on a variety of charges), and excessive media coverage. Thus, many of the militants were in jail, exiled or even dead. The COINTELPRO will have a great impact on the lives of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.


She is one of the most influential and iconic women of the XX century. She was born on January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her family was from the middle class, they were leaving in the “Dynamite Hill” were the intimidating bombings of the houses were frequent. Indeed, during her youth she saw many episodes of racial discrimination in her neighbourhood made by the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, growing up she discovered by herself racial prejudice. She attended a segregated black elementary school.

Then, she moved to Massachusetts to study philosophy with Herbert Marcuse to Brandeis University. She was one of three black students in her class. “Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary”. Then, she had the chance to study at the Sorbonne in Paris; she was there during the Birmingham Church Bombing (1963) made by the Ku Klux Klan where four black girls were killed, she knew them.

Afterwards, as a student at the University of California (1960s) she was associated with the Black Panthers and other organizations, such as the Che-Lumumba Club. She was assigned as Professor at University but got in many troubles because of her affiliation to the Communist movements. She even got fired but obtained her job back after a fight in Court. However, her contract expired in 1970 and she had to leave.

Furthermore, she became very attached to the “Soledad Brothers”: John Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Lester Jackson, who were being accused of the murder of a prison guard in the Soledad prison. During Jackson’s trial in 1970, an attack was made and several people in the courtroom were killed. Angela Davis was accused of three capital felonies, including conspiracy to murder, as one of the guns used in the attack was registered to her. She spent 18 months in jail, but was then acquitted of the charges. While she was in prison, a mass movement came over across all countries in the world, from the USA to China. In Italy, even before John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, it was the “Quartetto Cetra” group who wrote a song for her. This global cultural movement was asking for “free Angela and all political prisoners”.

After being released, she started an international speaking tour including Cuba, the USSR and East Germany. She was famous all over the world as an iconic character of the Liberation movement.

She left the Communist Party I 1991, founding the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.


In order to link her ideology and actions to the concept of civil disobedience, that we have just analysed, I want to quote some of her words. Starting from one of her most famous phrases: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept”.

She devoted her life to being a revolutionary. According to her, a revolutionary is someone who wants to change the nature of society, to promote a world that is in the interest of the people. Where human beings can live and love, be healthy and create. “You have to completely revolutionize the entire fabric of the society. You have to overturn the economic structure where you have a few individuals who are in possession of the vast majority of the wealth of this country, that has been provided by the majority of the people! You have to destroy this political apparatus.”[

She considered violence as a mean for achieving the destruction of the societal building, but not the main characteristic. “Oppressor has failed to acknowledge the fact that the people were right and had the right to control their lives. They are the ones who always initiate violence, as a form of repression.”

Both Angela Davis and Assata Shakur thought that people oppressed could not rely on governments to help recognizing people’s right.

“I don’t think we can rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do”. “Regimes of racial segregation were not disestablished because of the work of leaders and presidents and legislators, but rather because of the fact that ordinary people adopted a critical stance in the way in which they perceived their relationship to reality”.

Indeed, she understood that the main problem to be destroyed was racism, which was built into the system, into the nature of the society.

“Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?”.

All the civil rights movement, in this case from Martin Luther King to the Black Panthers, have hardly denounced the abuses perpetrated by the police against black people and protestants. They condemned the use of violence against disobedients. So, civil disobedience calls for the ability of the police to control the protest, but the question is how? Is violence enacted by the police always justified, instead of violence from disobedients?



She was born in Queens (New York) in 1947, the 16th of July, under the name of Joanne Deborah Bryon. She spent her childhood in New York and in Wilmington in North Carolina. She attended the Manhattan Community College and the City College of New York.

During University she became an activist, protesting against social injustices and racial disparities. She decided to change her name, as a declaration of his African heritage, to Assata (meaning “she who struggles”) and Shakur (as “the thankful”).

It was after the assassination of Martin Luther King that she decided to reject the non-violent method and ideology and enter the Black Power movement. She started to help organizing the community programs and first aid.

Due to her political justification of armed actions in the struggle for black liberation, she became one of the first targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, even though it is not so clear what specific actions she participated in. She then became a member of the Black Liberation Army. She was indicted of three bank robberies, the kidnapping and the murder of two drug dealers and the attempted murder of policemen on January 1973. That year she has been stopped by the police in New Jersey and was shot during a confrontation. A policeman died and she was charged with his murder. In March 1977 she was convicted of murdering the trooper Werner Forrester, although medical experts testified that her injuries would have rendered her incapable of firing the fatal shot. She was imprisoned at the maximum security prison for women in Alderson, West Virginia- Two years after her conviction, she escaped from prison and was given political asylum in Cuba where she is still living up today.

Her vision of the revolution is more radical than that of Angela Davis, at least in the means. She thought that violence was justified and necessary to destroy the system and the racist society.

One of the most interesting phrases written by Shakur in her autobiography[10] is the following one: “nobody in the world, nobody in history has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them”. Indeed, morality has always been appealed by philosophers who talked about civil disobedience. But morality is subjective and personal. The civil rights movement was protesting and demonstrating against a morality that was perceived wrong and based on racism.

“Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them”. Habermas talked much about the symbolic act of civil disobedience, in its non-violent process. But again, if you have no concrete action, there can’t be a real changing in the society.

“When Black people seriously organize and take up arms to fight for our liberation, there will be a lot of white people who will drop dead from no other reason that their own guilt and fear”. She denounced the racist education that was being installed into children from the very early age. How the history and traditions of black people was being hided from the main culture. “I had grown up believing the slaves hadn’t fought back. I remember feeling ashamed when they talked about slavery in school”.

She wanted black people and culture to be evaluated and recognized in America’s culture. She wanted black people to be able to express themselves and live their lives freely.

“My energy just couldn’t stop dancing. I was caught up in the music of struggle, and I wanted to dance.”





The aim of this paper was to link the Civil Rights Movement, from Martin Luther King to the more radical framework of the Black Panthers (through the lives of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur). It has been very interesting for me to compare the liberal vision of civil disobedience to the features and ideologies behind one of the most relevant mass movements of our recent history. I had the chance to understand the similarities and the differences between these two understandings of the same concept.

The definition given by philosophers starts from the fact that disobedience in order to be “civil” has to act and operate inside the boundaries of the rule of law. The problem is that it is that rule of law that has been criticised and fought back by the people. Also, the vision of the police as the guardian of justice, became a controversial issue to deal with.

The liberal concept of civil disobedience perfectly fits in the Civil Rights Movement, at least according to the ideology brought out by Martin Luther King. Then, it is very hard to understand and justify violence as a mean to do a revolution. But it is also true that throughout our whole history, there had never been a change or a revolution without a certain use of violence. Violence against a system that is perceived as wrong and obsolete, against a law enforcement that does not follow the needs of the people.

The unique solution to stop violence could be that the law and the legislators should embrace protests and the needs of the people, before violence had to occurred.


Arendt, H., Reflections on Civil Disobedience, published in the New Yorker, 1972.

Celikates, R., Rethinking of civil disobedience as a practice of contestation – beyond the liberal paradigm, published in the Constellation, Vol 1., 2016.

Davis, A., An autobiography, International Publishers, New York, 1974.

Luther King, M., Letter from Jail, Birmingham, 1963.

Shakur, A., Assata, an autobiography, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1988.

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