Lesson PlansBack to lesson plans archive February 25, 2013
What is the Role of Civil Disobedience Today?
By Doug DuBrin, an English and history teacher, as well as an editor and writer
Social Studies, Civics
Two to three class periods, plus extended activities
Through this lesson, the student will come to understand the practice of civil disobedience in view of both the death of Rosa Parks and of the 50th anniversary of her landmark act. The student also will examine civil disobedience’s history and explore whether it is a viable form of protest in today’s world.
Background for students:
In light of the death of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks (1913-2005), much of the nation has been examining Parks’ monumental action and legacy.
Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in the segregated South helped ignite a nationwide movement toward correcting deeply ingrained biases based on race in both the American government and in society.
Moreover, Parks’ action was one of passive resistance or civil disobedience — a form of protest against a government or organization in which the one protesting refuses to abide by a law that is contrary to his/her beliefs, while also refusing to engage in violent behavior to correct the injustice.
Parks broke the law — at the time, in 1955 Montgomery, Ala., segregation ordinances required blacks and whites to be separated in public facilities, such as restrooms or buses — in a peaceful manner, serving as a model for others.
Background for teachers:
Civil disobedience has its roots in antiquity, but its more recent application can be traced to American essayist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay a poll tax, since he believed the money generated from the tax would be used to fund the Mexican War, a campaign with which he was at odds.
Thoreau saw the war as one that would simply lead to the expansion of slave territory in the United States, and therefore in his view was an immoral undertaking.
As a result of not paying the tax, Thoreau was arrested and spent a night in jail, an experience that later proved seminal to his famous essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
Two key figures in the history of civil disobedience were inspired by Thoreau’s action — Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), also known as Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi, who through the practice of satyagraha (Sanskrit for “holding to the truth”) helped lead India out from under the yoke of British occupation, and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), who led the nation’s peaceful civil rights movement until his assassination.
Other famous practitioners of civil disobedience include Dorothy Day (1897-1980), founder of the Catholic Workers Movement and a champion of the dispossessed, and Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), a son of migrant workers and founder of the United Farm Workers Union; both used non-violent, yet often illegal, means to draw attention to their causes and create change in institutional policies.
More recent acts of passive resistance include the protests of anti-Iraq war activist Cindy Sheehan and her followers. Sheehan’s son died in Iraq. Outraged by the government’s justification for the war, Sheehan camped outside President Bush’s Texas home in the summer of 2005, hoping to meet with the president and draw attention to her cause.
- Either individually or in groups, have the students read the background information, the articles provided and the list of famous quotations regarding civil disobedience. Allow them time to take notes on the readings (which may be assigned prior to the lesson).
- Divide the class into groups of two to three students.
- Direct each group to select one figure from the list of quotes directly involved in acts of civil disobedience (such as Thoreau or King) and to perform basic research on the figure. To guide the investigation, the students may use the following questions:
- When and where did the person’s act(s) of civil disobedience take place?
- What specific societal issue(s) inspired him/her to commit civil disobedience?
- How much recognition (or notoriety) did the person receive as a result?
- When viewed in hindsight, how successful were the actions? Was there a change in policy as a result? Did the acts bring the issues into focus for the public?
- Have a representative from each group present the research findings to the class.
- In the same groups, have the students analyze the concept and practice of civil disobedience as well as their own beliefs on it by addressing the following:
- Which quotes are most/least relevant to our own times? Which are least relevant?
- Come back together as a class, and have a representative from each group summarize the answers of his/her group.
- Further explore the class’ perceptions by posing the following questions: (You may wish to assign these final questions for homework or as an in-class writing activity.)
- What conclusions might you draw about the class’ discussion on civil disobedience?
- What sacrifices would one need to make to commit an act of passive resistance? What could some of the negative consequences of the action be? In what ways does a person who commits civil disobedience alienate him/herself from society?
- In your view, how effective is civil disobedience in causing positive change in the world?
- Have the students address the assigned articles by composing an essay response. To guide the essay, you may wish to pose questions such as the following:
- What do you think about the protesters discussed in the articles?
- How successful have the followers of anti-Iraq war activist Cindy Sheehan been in generating meaningful discussion about the conflict’s legitimacy? Based on what you have read, do you take them seriously?
- If you were to offer an opposing argument to Sheehan and other like-minded people, what would be your main point? In a protest of Sheehan’s organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, what would be your counter stance?
- From what you have read, do the protesters seem genuinely committed to stopping the war, or could they be motivated by something else?
Extension Activity: Writing about civil disobedience
Have the students consider a situation in which they might use civil disobedience and then ask them to reflect on the experience in a journal. You may choose to first assign them Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, in which the author recounts his own experience in jail after breaking what he considers an unjust law. Urge the class to be sincere and thorough in their explorations of the experience, and as a guide you may have them address the following questions:
- What policy or law am I protesting and why?
- How am I choosing to passively resist? What are my methods?
- Am I alone in the act or part of an organization?
- What could be (or are) the consequences of my action, both positive and negative?
- How do others, including my family and peers, view the act I am committing?
- What are my motivations for committing the act? Are they truly altruistic, or am I seeking something for myself?
- What was achieved by the act? Did I receive publicity, recognition or notoriety? Did the action largely go unnoticed? Was a law or policy changed as a result? Was I successful in bringing attention to the issue?
- What was the experience like as a whole? Was breaking the law worth what was accomplished? Am I a better person for it now? Given the chance, would I do it again?
–Doug DuBrin teaches English and history at the French International School in Bethesda, Md. Previously, he taught English and history at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix. Doug is also a freelance writer and editor.
The Materials You Need
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Common Core Standards
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Relevant National Standards:
McRel Compendium of K-12 Standards Addressed:
- Standard 2: Time, Continuity and Change
- Standard 3: People, Places and Environments
- Standard 4: Individual Development and Identity
- Standard 5: Individuals, Groups and Institutions
- Standard 6: Power, Authority and Governance
- Standard 10: Civic Ideals and Practices
- Standard 1: History
- Standard 3: Civics and Government
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