practical lessons from classic cases of civil disobedience

I have been teaching two classic examples of civil disobedience or satyagraha—Gandhi’s Salt March and the Montgomery Bus Boycott—to very smart and committed undergraduates. The readings are listed below. As I reflect on our discussions, I’m thinking about two lessons that may not be widely understood today.

First, the objective is not the same as the target. Your objective might be to dismantle white supremacy, but that is not a “target“ because you can’t directly affect it, especially if you are a group of Black citizens of Montgomery, AL in 1955. The bus company is a target because 75% of its riders are African Americans, and you can bankrupt it by boycotting it.

The bus company was not the worst offender against racial equity, even among local institutions. For example, the city’s chief law enforcement officer was a member of the White Citizens Council, which made the police a worse problem than the bus company. But the bus company was a better target because Black people had more leverage over it.

The pitfall is to choose the targets that you can affect even though affecting them doesn’t trouble the worst offenders. I think a lot of left activism in the US since 2000 has targeted city governments and universities, leaving Wall Street unaffected. That is because left activists know how to target cities and colleges, but not how to target Wall Street. On the other hand, you do need targets that you can actually affect. The Montgomery bus boycott and the British colonial police force in India were good examples. They were vulnerable to direct action, and targeting them caused problems for higher authorities.

Second, a social movement is not primarily a protest. In fact, I am not sure that any act of “protest” occurred during the whole Montgomery Bus Boycott, if that means a gathering in a public space to convey a message: a march or demonstration. The Great Salt March was (in fact) a march, but that was not what gave it power. Gandhi got many people arrested for making their own salt and thereby flooded British jails; the Montgomery Improvement Association boycotted a bus company. Both were accomplishments of organization more than expression, although both certainly conveyed meaning to their supporters, their targets, and third parties.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in particular, was a matter of getting thousands of Black workers to their jobs every day for many months without using the buses. A protest would have accomplished little. Building an alternative transportation system brought a company to its knees and conveyed a message of power.


  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (“The March to the Sea”)
  • Bikhu Parekh, Gandhi, Chapter 4 (“Satyagraha”), pp. 51-62;
  • Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951), excerpts; and Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310
  • Karuna Mantena, “Showdown for Nonviolence: The Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Politics,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 78-110
  • Martha Nussbaum. “From Anger to Love: Self-Purification and Political Resistance,” in Shelby and Terry, pp. 114-135
  • Episode 1 of Eyes on the Prize, “Awakenings, 1954-1956”
  • Charles Payne, “Ella Baker and Models of Social Change“; and Ella Baker, “Developing Community Leadership“
  • Danielle McGuire, At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
  • James L. Farmer Jr., Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (excerpts)David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), pp. 105-205.
  • Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 , pp. 11-82
  • Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, chapters 3, 4, and 5.Charles Tilly, “Social Movements, 1768-2004“
  • Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.