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Martin Luther King's Civil Disobedience Legacy

The Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC with a cherry blossom tree in front
By FindLaw Staff | Last updated on

Every year, we set aside the third Monday of January to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his special place in our country's past as a civil rights leader.

But as a symbol, King continues to play an important role in the country's present and future. The enduring images of the civil rights protests from the 1960s that King and others led inform our views on civil disobedience in the modern American consciousness.

And if 2020's summer of unrest caused by the death of George Floyd was any indication, many Americans have renewed their faith in these teachings.

Civil Disobedience Has a Long History

King was actually not the first person to teach civil disobedience. Essayist Henry David Thoreau penned "Civil Disobedience" in 1849, popularizing the term here in the U.S. It was employed in Mahatma Gandhi and his followers in their struggle for Indian independence.

Many Christians also point back to the life of Jesus Christ as an early example of civil disobedience against the Roman empire to win devotees to his cause.

Using Civil Disobedience to Bring About Change

Like Gandhi, King used civil disobedience as a means of effectuating government change. It took the form of large-scale, non-violent refusals to obey government commands. There were sit-ins and marches, all carried out against the wishes of local authorities.

In King's mind, the purpose was to "create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." Civil disobedience, if on a grand enough scale, forces the government to negotiate change.

Tens of thousands of Americans — if not more — employed this strategy in 2020. While some people protesting in the wake of Floyd's death caused destruction, many marched, held sit-ins, and refused police orders to disperse to demonstrate their commitment to their principles.

Many peacefully handed themselves over to police. Each of them risked a criminal record in the name of change.

Martin Luther King's civil disobedience legacy was honored by all of these acts. So why not take the time Monday to honor him? While we do not advocate breaking the law, MLK day is also recognized as a national day of service. There are countless volunteer opportunities available across the country for you to take advantage of.

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