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Lesson Plans

What is the role of civil disobedience today?

April 2, 2020

Full Lesson


Interview with Cesar Chavez. 1979. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko via Library of Congress


Social Studies, Civics, English

Estimated Time:

Flexible: 20-minutes for Cesar Chavez activity; for full lesson, two to three class periods, plus extended activities

Grade Level

9 – 12


Through this lesson, you will come to understand the practice of civil disobedience in view of Cesar Chavez’s birthday on March 31 (he would have been 93) and celebration of Rosa Parks life and the landmark act that she played a significant in passing. You also will examine civil disobedience’s history and explore whether it is a viable form of protest in today’s world.

For a short warm-up activity: If you are focusing on Cesar Chavez, read over this list of quotes below (or see PDF on top right of page) and choose the one you like best. Share with a peer or your class online (write out or give short verbal explanation) What does the quote mean? Where have you exhibited similar behavior in your life or community? How about another figure from history? If aiming for a longer lesson, you may include Chavez’s quotes with Part I below.

  1. Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
  2. To make a great dream come true, the first requirement is a great capacity to dream; the second is persistence.
  3. Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.
  4. History will judge societies and governments – and their institutions – not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.
  5. The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.
  6. Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak… Non-violence is hard work.
  7. You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.
  8. Never, never is it possible to reach someone if you become angry or bitter. Only love and gentleness can do it. Maybe not this time but maybe the next or the hundredth time.
  9. We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure.


Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks (1913-2005) 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.

Dig deeper:

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.Chavez Quotes


Part I:

  1. Either individually or in groups, read the background information, the articles provided and the list of famous quotations regarding civil disobedience. Take notes on the readings (which may be assigned prior to the lesson).
  2. You may want to divide into groups of two to three students.
  3. 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?
  4. Have a representative from each group present the research findings to the class.

Part II

  1. In the same groups, analyze the concept and practice of civil disobedience as well as your own beliefs on it by addressing the following:
    • Which quotes are most/least relevant to our own times? Which are least relevant?
  2. Come back together as a class, and have a representative from each group summarize the answers of his/her group.

Part III

  1. Further explore the class’ perceptions by posing the following questions: (These may be assigned as final questions for homework or as an in-class writing activity.)
    • What conclusions can you draw about 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?

Part IV

  1. 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

Consider a situation in which you might use civil disobedience and reflect on the experience in a journal. You may first want to read 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. Be sincere and thorough in your explorations of the experience. As a guide you may want to 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.