Civil Disobedience or Un-civil Disobedience?

Dr. Spencer Crew, former president of the National Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, gave a lecture based on the relationship between civil disobedience, the Underground Railroad and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was an American slavery abolitionist who focused on the idea of revising the government through civil disobedience rather than overthrowing the system entirely. While the three topics do correlate, I was eager to ask Dr. Crew his opinion on the effectiveness of civil disobedience and whether or not Thoreau and other abolitionists and civil rights activists took the right approach to promoting equality. His answer to my question encouraged me to consider many layers of society and how activism influences public opinion.

There are three periods in American history that relate to African-Americans where I could think of civil disobedience being a means of influencing legislation. The first is slavery, featuring abolitionists like Henry Thoreau, the second is the Civil Rights Movement, featuring activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the third is modern United States, featuring activists like Reverend Al Sharpton. All three of these periods and the names associated with them are what I consider to be the civil disobedience side of the battle for equality. Each of these men are recognized for their peaceful contributions that have swayed public opinion and in result, encouraged better laws to protect African-Americans.

The question that I asked Dr. Crew regarding the effectiveness of civil disobedience led me to consider other factors that make civil disobedience effective. The main factor that Dr. Crew highlighted was uncivil disobedience. He argues that the contrast of civil vs. un-civil is what makes the peaceful protesters and abolitionists able to influence public opinion. In other words, they used the “good cop bad cop” method. While there were activists like Dr. King who encouraged peaceful marches and gave speeches to gain positive attention to the movement, there were also activists like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael who took a more aggressive approach to change. Dr. King and Malcolm X were able to play off of each other’s energy by providing the American people with two different options to obtain the same goal, equality.

This leaves me with the question of whether or not civil disobedience can even be effective without un-civil disobedience existing for the same cause. Do speeches and protests work without riots and violence to follow? Would the Underground Railroad have existed if there were not abolitionists willing to break the law as opposed only speak towards the reform of the government? I argue that it would not, simply because in each example of a time period that I listed regarding civil disobedience, there was some form of un-civil disobedience acting at the same time. I don’t find it to be a coincidence that these two dynamics always appear at the same time throughout history. I guess the question could even break down further to “which comes first, civil disobedience or un-civil disobedience as a result of inequality and tension.” Where there’s a march, there’s a riot.

In The Fifth Season, Jemisin shows the contrast between civil disobedience and uncivil disobedience in comparing the Fulcrum-trained orogenes, like Syenite and Alabaster, against the orogenes in Castrima like Ykka. Upon entering into Castrima, Ykka warns Essun, Hoa and Tonkee that “Castrima is something unique. We’re trying something very different here.” (pg.273) In saying this she is alluding to the fact that they are not being regulated by the Fulcrum and in fact, it appears that no one in the geode has a guardian or abides by any rules of orogeny. Essun, being a later version of Syenite, notes that she’s “never heard of anyone doing anything like this with orogeny. It’s not for building.” (pg.332) It is because she has spent all of her adult life being controlled by her oppressor, that she exercises structure and obedience of this rule in this way.

While Essun has already broken many rules by traveling alone and using orogeny the way that she does in Tirimo, she still tries to follow some structure based on her previous Fulcrum knowledge as Syenite. In casual conversation Ykka notes the difference between herself and Essun by saying, “Fulcrum-trained? The ones who survive it always seem to sound like you.” (Pg.333) Ykka practices civil disobedience regularly, such that orogenes like Essun look far more obedient than she ever could.

It is this combination of civil and uncivil behaviors that lead to the overall success of any movement. In some ways we could say that Essun is Martin Luther King, someone who does not agree with the rules but did his best to follow them even in search of a new life, and Ykka is Malcolm X, someone who is willing to break the rules in hopes of survival for his people.

For anyone interested in reading the full explanation of Henry David Thoreau’s stance on civil disobedience, here is the link to his published thesis.

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