Thinking on Education: Teaching Civil Disobedience
Updated Nov. 10, 2022 ◊ Karissa Neely
As we teach history, one of the many important ideas from the world’s shared history is the use of civil disobedience to motivate change.
This is sometimes a tricky concept for younger children, because they are so ingrained with rules at home and at school.
“Don’t cross the street without looking both ways.”
“Don’t hit your sister.”
“Don’t touch the hot stove.”
“Don’t jump on the bed.”
Sometimes we all — not just children — struggle with the nuances of breaking a law, even when it is a bad one. That very struggle is why we view those who improve society through civil disobedience as heroes.
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote. “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that 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 law.”
As dictionaries define it, civil disobedience is the refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest. Or, as Emmeline Pankhurst, a late-1800s British suffragist, put it:
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
For her own acts of civil disobedience, Pankhurst was arrested about 20 times throughout the 40 years she campaigned for women’s right to vote. British women gained that right in 1928, just a few weeks after Pankhurst’s death.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was one of many white and black protesters who spent time in prison for their actions during the Civil Rights Movement. Mulholland faced violence and anger when she joined friends at a 1963 Woolworth’s sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, but didn’t back down or retaliate.
Many others throughout history caused important change through their civil disobedience.
Mahatma Gandhi led the Salt March in 1930 — a peaceful protest of British rule in India and its unfair taxes and production restrictions on Indian salt. As Gandhi made the 240-mile march on foot, villagers along the way gathered to the cause.
Change did not immediately happen for the Indian people after this, but Gandhi’s act inspired others, and eventually brought great change for his people.
Civil disobedience almost always takes time to be effective, and sometimes multiple people must resolutely rise up before the spark of hope catches. Before Rosa Parks’ quiet but monumental act, one teen did the same in March 1955.
Claudette Colvin was a 15-year-old high school student in Montgomery, Alabama. As she explained in a March 2018 interview with the BBC, when the driver asked her to give up her seat in a full bus, she refused.
“He wanted me to give up my seat for a white person and I would have done it for an elderly person but this was a young white woman,” she said in the interview.
Colvin told the bus driver she’d paid her fare, and had the right to remain where she was. Police arrested her and placed her in an adult cell, not a juvenile detention center, Colvin said. Her mother bailed her out about three hours later.
In 1956, after the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Colvin was one of four people to testify to the United States Supreme Court about bus segregation. The court ruled to end segregation on buses.
The Tank Man
1989 was a year of changes — with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the uprising in Romania, and the arrest of Manuel Noriega. But one lone man in China became an emblem of the fight for freedom worldwide.
In Beijing that year, student-led demonstrations protested China’s Communist government, and called for basic human rights. The students stationed their main protest near their “Goddess of Democracy” statue in Tiananmen Square.
China’s government responded with military force, killing many with sprays of gunfire and tanks. One man, known only to history as the Tank Man, symbolized the Chinese government’s suppression of human rights and the students’ protest.
On the morning of June 5, after massive violence and deaths just the night before, the Tank Man faced down a line of tanks as they rolled into the square.
Caught on video by journalists, the man blocked the tanks as they tried multiple times to maneuver around him. Even as gunfire could be heard around him, he alone gestured to the tanks to turn back.
Eventually, the tanks went around him and continued on, but his effort became a symbol to the world.
Teaching Civil Disobedience
These are just a few examples of those who used civil disobedience for the betterment of themselves and others. Brave change-makers of history can inspire students today to be the change they want to see in their own society.
“Whenever people ask me: ‘Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you?’ I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail,” Colvin said of her experience.
Even at a young age, students can and should learn the importance of civil disobedience, explained Andrea S. Libresco, professor of Social Studies Education at Hofstra University, in her 2018 National Council for the Social Studies article.
Libresco highlighted how two children’s books — “The Little Book of Little Activists,” by Penguin Young Readers, and “The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, by Cynthia Levinson — can show students their own power.
Using these books, Libresco suggested various learning strategies to engage students:
Use primary source images and discuss the freedoms and rights the participants are protesting for. Dig deep with questions such as:
- Who has the power to make — and change — rules and laws in society?
- What are citizens’ responsibilities to their community?
- What are governments’ responsibilities to its citizens?
- What situations might call for different kinds of protest?
- Besides a march, what are other methods of protest?
- What obstacles do people face in their struggles for change?
- How do you measure the success of a movement?
- Are there any issues about which you feel strongly enough to protest?
Create project-based learning where students research issues and represent their research in one of the following ways:
- Talk to family and friends about an issue
- Learn or write a song or poem about the topic
- Write letters to a company or public official
- Make a mural
- Post informational signs at school
- Go to a local meeting or hearing
- Hold a fund-raiser with an educational component
- Add an article about the topic in a school newspaper or website
- Attend a demonstration with their families
Children have a keen sense of right and wrong and can be true change-makers in their communities. Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, witnessed this in his own life. In a PBS broadcast, he described how, at the age of 12, he participated in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963.
That experience was a powerful example to him, to the world at that time, and to others today. Just last year, after learning about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, fifth graders from Case Elementary School in Akron, Ohio joined others in the National School Walkout to protest gun violence.
“The message is this. The world doesn’t have to be the way the world is. Good people can act, and the world can be better, and so can we,” Hrabowski said.