Like me, you probably wonder what the distinguished figures of the past would think if they could see what is occurring in the United States today. For example, how would the Founding Fathers react to political correctness and the fascistic attempts to control speech and behavior? What would Booker T. Washington think about the race baiting and extortion tactics of the Jesse Jacksons and the Kweisi Mfumes? How would famous director Cecil B. DeMille regard the shallow and salacious films being mass-produced by the Hollywood film factories? And what would renowned news analyst Edward R. Murrow think about today’s prettified TV newsreaders — The Hair-dos and Outfits Brigade?
Speculation on how thinkers of prior generations would regard contemporary society brings me to Henry David Thoreau, specifically his essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau believed that certain injustices were serious enough to warrant defiance of authority. He himself refused to pay his poll taxes because he felt he was lending support to policies he disapproved of, such as slavery and the war against Mexico.
Nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, such as demonstrations, protests and boycotts, have always been employed to combat major injustices — war being a primary target. The recent demonstrations against military operations in Baghdad are a replay of the protests we witnessed during the Viet Nam war.
The most famous fictional account of a war protest is Aristophanes comedic play “Lysistrata.” In this play, Aristophanes depicts an unusual form of civil disobedience. The women of Athens had grown weary of the war between Athens and Sparta that had continued for twenty years. Finally the women decided upon an exceptional form of protest to end the war. They refused to sleep with their husbands until the men ceased fighting. Needless to say, this remarkable protest — a boycott that removed the boy from the cot — was entirely successful. The war came to an abrupt end.
In addition to war, civil disobedience has been used against other major injustices. Mohandas Ghandi and the massive protests he orchestrated to gain India’s independence from Great Britain come to mind. Martin Luther King Jr. organized a boycott against the Montgomery Bus Company because of its segregated facilities.
Certainly Thoreau would have approved of the nonviolent disobedience of Ghandi in India and King in Montgomery, because the injustice they opposed was serious enough to justify the defiance of authority.
But, ask yourself, how would Thoreau feel about the purposes for which “civil disobedience” is employed in our present society? For example, these recent acts of civil disobedience.
In Tallahassee, parents protested outside the Governor’s office demanding that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) be abolished because it is “unfair” to some students, mostly minorities. Despite the fact that the majority of students passed, protesters claim that the test prevents some seniors from graduating. Parents argued that the students had attended classes regularly, completed their homework assignments, and in fact, done everything that was required of them except pass the FCAT. To force the abolition of the FCAT, parents organized a vigorous boycott against Florida’s economy, primarily targeting orange juice and the Florida State lottery. Protesters paraded outside the State Capitol building displaying empty orange juice cartons and chanting; “Standards yes, FCAT no.”
A slightly different protest occurred in Savannah. This protest concerned the Georgia High School Graduation Test. Incredibly, students are allowed to take the test five times and, although most students have passed it, some have not. But the purpose of this protest is not the test itself, but the fact that students who did not pass will not be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies. Parents demand that these failed students be permitted to don cap and gown and walk with the others. As a “compromise,” they even proposed that unsuccessful seniors be handed an empty cylinder instead of a diploma. These parents claim that other school districts have allowed this practice and demand that the school board change its policy.
Recently, veiled threats of demonstrations were made by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a news conference he held at the Alabama Capitol building in Montgomery. Jackson decried current “discriminatory practices” in the State and announced that Rainbow Push would open offices in Alabama to combat racism. The act of presumed prejudice that prompted Jackson’s threats was the University of Alabama’s recent hiring of a new football coach. The candidates under consideration had been narrowed to two whites and one black. The University chose one of the white candidates and Jackson referred to their decision as an example of lingering racism. In addition to calling for an NCAA investigation of hiring practices in college athletic departments, Jackson also hinted at protests and boycotts unless more minorities were added to college coaching staffs.
In the city of Greenville, South Carolina, the NAACP organized a large protest march because the County does not have an official holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. Greenville County has 10 holidays — 5 mandatory and 5 optional. County officials have traditionally selected the optional holidays at the beginning of each year. As a result of the NAACP’s original request, the County revamped its holiday structure to allow the employees themselves to vote on the 5 optional holidays, with MLK day being one of the possible choices. Allowing employees a choice was unacceptable to the NAACP who insisted on a mandatory holiday that must be taken by all County employees. The organization also demanded that County offices must be closed for the day.
Atlanta activists threatened to organize a boycott against a Georgia referendum to allow voters to decide on the design for the State’s flag. The voters could possibly have had three choices with one version containing the Confederate flag logo. But minority groups made it clear that they would not take part in any referendum that included the Confederate flag logo as a choice. Furthermore, they indicated that, should the referendum pass, cities throughout Georgia should expect demonstrations, protests and other kinds of civic unrest. This potential civic disruption has apparently been avoided because extreme pressure on the Georgia legislature forced that body to restrict the referendum to only two flags, neither containing the Confederate flag logo.
Predictably, these protesters rationalized their disobedience with sanctimonious rhetoric. And, just as predictably, editorialists with major newspapers expressed empathy for the protesters. But I believe Henry David Thoreau would be shocked by the use of civil disobedience to deny citizens the right to vote on state issues; to coerce the creation of county holidays, and to influence an organization’s employment decisions. And Thoreau would certainly be appalled to learn that civic unrest is being aggressively exerted in attempts to circumvent scholastic achievement criteria.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.