The Civil Rights Movement
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During the mid-1950s racial segregation was prominent in the southern United States and even though there were many advancements, not everyone had the privilege of enjoying them. African American were treated as inferior and it was necessary to end that cruelty. The lack of government action and poor enforcement of laws led to civil disobedience. This piece will be examining the Civil Rights Movement as an example of civil disobedience, through an ethical lens, mainly focusing on the consequentialist ethics theory. Martin Luther King was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and wrote the famous ”Letter from Birmingham Jail”, using Thoreau’s beliefs as an inspiration, which will be often referred to in this piece. According to the University of Texas at Austin the consequentialist theory judges if something is right by what its consequences are. We all have our own ethical system and consuciness of what is wrong and right because it is part of our humanity, and we often seek to do actions that will have a positive outcome, based on this theory civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement will be examined.
As defined in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, civil disobedience is a form of nonviolent protest where it is attempted to change a law, and the protestants are willing to take responsibility for their actions. It devastating to think that African American were seen as the enemy when all they were doing was defending their rights. They were told false promises over and over again, and were asked to wait, but it is evident that one gets tired of waiting when it seems like there will be no action taken. As Martin Luther King said “justice too long delayed is justice denied”, thus it had as a consequence civil disobedience; leading to question if in reality African American were wrong for disobeying the law or if the government was breaking moral rules such as, telling the truth, respecting others and keeping their promises. Before the 20th century, during 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote a remarkable essay that was an inspiration for many. His main argument was that “individuals should not permit governments to overrule their consciences”, and that we have the duty to make sure this doesn’t happen, and also claimed that “Government is best which governs least”.
Martin Luther King was influenced by Thoreau thinking, King was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and conducted a year long protest, and was put in jail for it, the protest still didn’t end discrimination. MLK believed that it was necessary to create certain tension to be heard, and end racism, with the practice being nonviolent it may still be considered unethical, but if the tension was to create with the purpose of making a positive and remarkable change not just for him but for the whole community, it is ethically accepted. From King’s perspective the “city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative”. If examined from the consequentialist ethical theory, his argument is more than understandable, it would have been degrading to follow laws that diminish you as an individual and ; it brought as a consequence civil disobedience.
African American had been experiencing unjust treatment since a long time ago, and no one was taking any initiative to help them, not even the church leaders who often claimed that integration was morally right, but when it came to segregation , it was acceptable to do it because it was the “law”. There was huge controversy because everyone pretended that they were helping African American and asked them to be patient but in reality they were alone. Therefore, it was ethically correct that African American advocated for themselves, and they were not using any violence because with a good action comes a good outcome. The role-related responsibilities of the moral actors, like Martin Luther King and Thoreau was to lead the people and give them hope because as s In a nation with a representative government all eligible voters are moral actors because they have the ability and the right to determine who will be making the decisions for us, and representing our country.
However, as explained in Thoreau’s piece the simple thought of not supporting something that is ethically wrong is worth nothing if not action is taken. In addition, it is not wrong to oppose the position that the majority advocates for, not just because the majority thinks that something is correct you should believe that as well, your voice should be heard. It is our duty as citizens to make sure that the public policies are respected, to have individual though, to not become “machines” that do things just because they are supposed to or someone else orders them to do so, but because it is something that is we believe in and is ethically correct. Civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement brought ethical conflicts because through the eyes of the government the Black community was disobedient, but in reality they were just advocating for themselves because they were treated with cruelty and as inferior.
However, the consequentialist theory helps with the understanding of this ethical conflict due that by judging whether the actions of the government towards African American were good or not, we can deduct that the behavior that the Black community had was just a consequence of the inequality with what they were being treated. African American were also using nonviolent actions and were willing to negotiate, by doing this good actions they also hoped to obtained a good response from the government. I assess the actions taken by the not only Martin Luther King, but also other moral actors such as Thoreau and Gandhi, as ethical because it is necessary to fight for one’s individual thought and rights, because as King said, “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever”, but always considering that every action will come with a consequence.