Civil disobedience is a key aspect of American culture. Generations of Americans chose to defy the laws of the land to form the more perfect union the Founding Fathers dreamed about. The United States was founded on the principle of protest, so it is no surprise that every era in American history has been marked by political dissent.
This week in history, we remember three instances in U.S. history where everyday Americans fought for what they believed in, no matter the price they would have to pay. While each event may have seemed small at the time, they set off a chain of events that fueled the fire of revolution in our nation.
On Dec. 1, 1955, 65 years ago, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Ala. for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man.
Per Montgomery’s racial segregation laws, Black riders were required to sit in the back of the bus, and if the white section was filled, Blacks were required by law to give up their seat. When Parks did not comply, she was removed and arrested.
Parks’ pivotal first act ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott that would last for more than a year. Led by the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Black bus riders, who made up more than 70% of the city’s ridership, refused to take the bus until they could ride the bus as their white counterparts did.
In Nov. of 1956, following a crippling financial year for the municipal bus company, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s mass transit segregation laws, deeming them unconstitutional. This would mark the first of a series of victories that history would come to know as the Civil Rights Movement.
On Dec. 2, 1859, 161 years ago, abolitionist John Brown was executed on charges of treason, murder and insurrection less than two months after his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.
Brown was a staunch abolitionist, yet disagreed with the tactics used by Northern elites to eradicate slaverly in the United States. Brown did not believe slavery could be ended by books and speeches made by Northern politicians. Instead, he believed progress could only be made possible by mobilizing an army.
In October of 1859, Brown led a mixed racial group of fighters to seize the Federal arsenal of Harpers Ferry. Brown planned to arm Southern slaves to overthrow their masters.
Though Brown was initially successful, he was soon defeated after future Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, retook the arsenal and arrested Brown and his accomplices.
Brown was sentenced to death, driving the wedge deeper between an already divided nation. Southerners saw Brown as a criminal and arsonist who deserved to die a traitor’s death, while Brown was made a hero and martyr for the abolitionist cause in the North. 16 months after Brown’s execution, the nation was at war.
On Dec. 3, 1964, 56 years ago, nearly 800 college students of the Free Speech Movement were arrested at the University of California, Berkeley.
College students and young people have always been at the forefront of major political movements, with the counterculture movement of the turbulent 1960s being one of the most prominent in recent history. The issues we typically associate with the 1960s: Civil rights, the Vietnam War, feminism and environmentalism, were only just beginning to enter political jargon at the time of the incident, yet the growing tides of change were sowing the seeds of future protests.
Over the course of the 1964-65 academic year, students developed the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the UC Berkeley campus, demanding that the university administration ease restrictions on political expression of its students and prevent campus regulations from being imposed on students off-campus.
Since the administration did little to accommodate the requests of the student-led organization, the FSM launched a campaign to bring university operations to a screeching halt. 6000 students flooded the campus, blocking all access to the main administrative building. Students then staged a sit-in, remaining in the administrative building past closing and through the night, planning to stay until the university met their demands.
At the command of Chancellor Edward Strong, campus police arrested and forcibly removed 776 students over the course of 12 hours on Dec. 3.
The administration’s handling of the situation only enraged the movement and fueled the fire for future student dissent. As the 60s continued, UC Berkeley would become a hotbed for the political protest of American young people.
Protest has and continues to be an essential part of what it means to be American. Every era has seen large movements of ordinary people, questioning the institutions of the past to form a better and brighter future. While it may seem un-American to go against the will of the establishment, I’d argue that there is nothing more patriotic than standing up for what you believe in, just as the first patriots of the American Revolution did.