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Civil Disobedience Quotes About This Moral Duty

These civil disobedience quotes will help you better understand what it is and why it is important.

The term civil disobedience refers to a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken to bring about a change in laws or government policies.

Henry David Thoreau is credited with coining the term “civil disobedience,” in his 1849 essay. He practiced this behavior by refusing to pay his state poll tax as a protest against the institution of slavery, the extermination of Native Americans, and the war against Mexico. Thoreau was placed in jail at one point for his refusal to pay this specific tax.

Other famous examples of civil disobedience include Rosa Parks’ violation of the Montgomery, Alabama, city ordinance requiring African Americans to sit at the back of public buses. The law also stated that they should relinquish those seats to white riders if the front of the bus filled up.

There are two types of civil disobedience: direct and indirect. Rosa Parks engaged in direct civil disobedience by breaking the law she opposed. Indirect civil disobedience happens when people can not directly break the law they oppose. They engage in other forms of protest that break a law they do not actually oppose—like conducting a sit-in on government buildings.

However, there are many characteristics that are part of civil disobedience. Keep reading to learn more about the principles of civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience quotes about laws

1. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Martin Luther King Jr.

2. “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”  Henry David Thoreau

3. “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” Thomas Jefferson

4. “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.” Mahatma Gandhi

5. “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”  Howard Zinn

6. “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless and corrupt.”  Mahatma Gandhi

7. “When a man’s conscience and the laws clash, it is his conscience that he must follow.” ― Henry David Thoreau

8. “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

9. “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” ― Henry David Thoreau

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10. “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for the law.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Civil disobedience quotes from Henry David Thoreau

11. “In an unjust society the only place for a just man is prison.” ― Henry David Thoreau

12. “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.” ― Henry David Thoreau

13. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” ― Henry David Thoreau

14. “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” ― Henry David Thoreau

15. “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.” ― Henry David Thoreau

16. “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” ― Henry David Thoreau

17. “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” ― Henry David Thoreau

18. “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” ― Henry David Thoreau

19. “The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” ― Henry David Thoreau

20. “In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” ― Henry David Thoreau

Civil disobedience quotes from famous leaders

21. “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” Benjamin Franklin

22. “Women have to risk civil disobedience for their rights.” ― Sonia Johnson

23. “I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving in.” ― Rosa Parks

24. “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” Abraham Lincoln

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25. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke

26. “The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” ― Cesar Chavez

27. “Mass civil disobedience is like an earthquake, a sort of general upheaval on the political plane.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

28. “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.” Malcolm X

29. “As long as the world shall last, there will be wrongs, and if no man objected, and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.” ― Clarence Darrow

30. “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything… that smacks of discrimination or slander.” ― Mary McLeod Bethune

Thought-provoking civil disobedience quotes

31. “It was civil disobedience that won them their civil rights.” ― Tariq Ali

32. “The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.” — W.E.B. Du Bois

33. “Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” ― Michael Eric Dyson

34. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Ida B. Wells

35. “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” Nelson Mandela

36. “Far more violence has been done in obeying the law than in breaking the law.” Robert Frost

37. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Muhammad Ali

38. If we don’t rebel, if we’re not physically in an active rebellion, then it’s spiritual death.” ― Chris Hedges

39. “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” ― Henry David Thoreau

40. “I knew then and I know now, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it.” — Claudette Colvin

Civil disobedience quotes about citizens, freedom, and government

41. “Freedom is never given; it is won.” — A. Philip Randolph

42. “It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.” Aristotle

43. “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Benjamin Franklin

44. “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” Albert Einstein

45. “Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” — Albert Einstein

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46. “Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.” — Diane Nash

47. “Freedom. It stays in your head and won’t bust out or slip away like tears.” ― Shelton Johnson

48. “The entire system of the judiciary of this country is in the hands of white people.” — Ida B Wells.

49. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” — Martin Luther King.

50. “If you’re not going to use your free speech to criticize your own government, then what the hell is the point of having it?” ― Michel Templet

What does true civil disobedience require

The first principle of civil disobedience is to keep civility and to show a level of self-restraint. Communication, publicity, non-violence, non-evasion, and decorum are all parts of civil disobedience, but what does each term mean?

First, civil disobedience is a means of communicating with the government and lawmakers. When a person breaks a law like stealing from a store, they do not wish to have any sort of communication with law enforcement or policymakers.

Next is the matter of publicity. Again, that same thief would not want everyone knowing they broke the law, whereas someone engaging in civil disobedience is doing it intending to raise awareness.

Non-violence and non-evasion are the next two critical components of civil disobedience.

According to Rawls (1999), “To engage in violent acts likely to injure and to hurt is incompatible with civil disobedience as a mode of address. Indeed, any interference with the civil liberties of others tends to obscure the civilly disobedient quality of one’s act.”

People engaging in civil disobedience are also willing to accept the punishment for their crimes (such as jail time).

Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, AL. When you run from and try to evade the law, you are not engaging in civil disobedience—you are just breaking the law.

The idea of decorum in civil disobedience means that a person should remain dignified and respectful. Although many scholars have argued that this principle should be dissociated from the concept of civil disobedience.

There are so many more facets to each of these principles. Not everything is black and white. However, this is a good place to start. To learn more, check out this full text from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor
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