Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws of the state, and/or demands, orders, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is sometimes defined as having to be nonviolent to be called civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is sometimes, therefore, equated with nonviolent resistance.
Although civil disobedience is considered to be an expression of contempt for law, Martin Luther King Jr. regarded civil disobedience to be a display and practice of reverence for law; for as "Any man who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law."
Its earliest massive non-violent implementation was brought about by Egyptians against the British occupation in the 1919 Revolution. Zaghloul Pasha who is considered the mastermind of this massive Civil Disobedience was a native middle-class, Azhar graduate, political activist, judge, parliamentary and ex Cabinet Minister whose leadership brought Christian and Muslim communities together as well as Women into the massive protests. Along with his companions of Wafd Party, who started campaigning in 1914, they have achieved independence of Egypt and a first constitution in 1923.
Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against what they deem to be unfair laws. It has been used in many nonviolent resistance movements in India (Gandhi's campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, in early stages of Bangladesh independence movement against Pakistani repression and in East Germany to oust their communist governments. In South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American Civil Rights Movement, in the Singing Revolution to bring independence to the Baltic countries from the Soviet Union, recently with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, among other various movements worldwide.
One of the oldest depictions of civil disobedience is in Sophocles' play Antigone, in which Antigone, one of the daughters of former King of Thebes, Oedipus, defies Creon, the current King of Thebes, who is trying to stop her from giving her brother Polynices a proper burial. She gives a stirring speech in which she tells him that she must obey her conscience rather than human law. She is not at all afraid of the death he threatens her with (and eventually carries out), but she is afraid of how her conscience will smite her if she does not do this.
Following the Peterloo massacre of 1819, poet Percy Shelley wrote the political poem The Mask of Anarchy later that year, that begins with the images of what he thought to be the unjust forms of authority of his time—and then imagines the stirrings of a new form of social action. According to Ashton Nichols, it is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest. A version was taken up by the author Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha. Gandhi's Satyagraha was partially influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action. In particular, it is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley's Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.
Thoreau's 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government", has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. The driving idea behind the essay is that citizens are morally responsible for their support of aggressors, even when such support is required by law. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican–American War. He writes,
If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;—see if I would go;" and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute.