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John Locke And The Civil Rights Movement Essay, Research Paper

John Locke and the Civil Rights Movement Would John Locke, a liberal thinker who advocates resistance to an unjust government, support the civil rights movement of the 1960s? In his Second Treatise, the argument he presents in favor of government resistance suggests that he would support the nonviolent civil disobedience that constituted part of this movement. For, although Locke limits the cases in which resistance is possible, these limitations are not applicable to the civil rights movement. Moreover, he says that two conditions justify resistance to an unjust government. First, if the legislative alters or changes, the citizens have the right to resist the government. Second, if the legislative acts against the trust of the citizens by violating their natural rights, the citizens can resist the government. This condition, to a greater extent than the first, shows that Locke would support the civil rights movement. For example, the “Jim Crow” laws that subordinated the African Americans illustrate an unlawful intrusion into natural rights; therefore, the African Americans have the right to resist these laws. This second condition is the crux of Locke’s theoretical support of the civil rights movement. In order to understand Locke’s argument in its entirety, we must first examine the limitations he puts on resisting government. Locke realizes that the right to resist a government may follow a slippery slope, leading a person to oppose a government because it causes minor grievances for him. He states that this unsubstantiated opposition creates “anarchy and confusion” (401). Moreover, anyone who resists the government, except in cases of unjust and unlawful force, deserves a “just condemnation both from God and man” (402). Locke presents three cases in which the citizens do not have the right to dissolve or to resist the government. First, if the prince, or chief executive, of a country is sacred according to the laws, like the absolute monarch in France, then he is secure from all of the harm and violence of resistance. This ruler is the figurehead and the symbol of his country’s stability. In such cases, the preservation of this divine ruler, despite the suffering of a few private men, is better for the country’s well-being than civil disobedience (402). Second, Locke argues that the citizens do not have the right to resist the government if the injured party can improve his condition through an appeal to the law. If the hostile force does not threaten the life of the oppressed citizen, then he must allow the law to act and to seek justice and not take matters into his own hands (403). To illustrate this point, Locke uses the example of an armed thief who demands money from an innocent man. If the thief does not threaten the innocent man’s life and only demands money, then the innocent man must appeal to the law for retribution (403-404). However, Locke says that a hostile force that endangers the life of the oppressed citizen leads to a state of war, in which the citizen can resist and defend himself against this force (404). This distinction between hostile force that endangers life and hostile force that does not endanger life is important, because it shows the line that Locke draws between just and unjust resistance.The third case that Locke presents to limit government resistance is the unwillingness of an oppressed minority or group of men to unite in opposition to the government. Locke believes that people are by nature politically passive and reluctant to overthrow political systems. He says that the oppressed few do not have the force or the sheer numbers to “disturb the government” and to resist effectively the well-settled state (404). The minority has the impossible task of opposing the government without the support of the public, which lacks any interest in resisting the government. Locke states that the oppression of a small number of people does not justify government resistance because the majority of the public does not support this cause and the task of dissolving the government is nearly impossible (404). Based on this third case, one might present the objection that Locke would not support the civil rights movement because minority groups, such as the African Americans, do not have the power to resist or to dissolve the government, even if the state oppresses their rights to some extent. The objection claims that the civil rights movement did not include a majority of the American public and cannot be a legitimate or an effective form of political resistance. However, this objection is fallacious. The majority of the American public, including Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, supported the causes of the civil rights movement. The fight for equal rights was not just an African American issue but a national issue, as well; Americans of all different ethnic backgrounds showed their support for the movement. Locke would endorse the civil rights movement for its defense of the African Americans’ natural rights. This objection that Locke would not support the civil rights movement is invalid and based on fallacious assumptions. These three cases show the limitations that Locke puts on government resistance. While he defends resistance in cases of unjust and unlawful forces that violate natural rights, Locke provides guidelines that restrict this right to opposition. These guidelines prevent the anarchy and confusion of a constantly changing and dissolving state and contribute to the stability of the government (401). He realizes that the dissolution of the government is not a common occurrence; however, he insists that the citizens do possess the right to resist authority in order to protect their natural rights (406). The right to dissolve a tyrannical and unjust government is a key component to Locke’s liberal theory and justifies his support of the civil rights movement. According to Locke, the first condition of dissolving or resisting a government’s authority is if the legislative alters or changes. He says that the legislative includes three political bodies: a supreme executive, an assembly of nobility, and an assembly of representatives (407). Locke believes that altering the legislative body destroys the fundamental bonds of society and government. He states that the legislative unites the people of a commonwealth, and if this legislative breaks or alters, then “dissolution and death follow” (408). Locke asserts that the people mutually consented to establish a distinct legislative that represents the common will, but an altering and unstable political body cannot adequately represent this common will. The citizens have the right to resist the legislative authority that changes and fails to uphold their natural rights (407). How does one change the legislative? Locke answers this question by proposing four ways to alter a legislative body. First, a prince or supreme executive who replaces the law with his own self-interest changes the legislative. A prince who introduces new laws without the consent of the community overthrows the legislative and establishes a new political authority based on these self-interested laws (408-409). Second, the supreme executive hindering the legislative from meeting or fulfilling its duties alters the legislative. Locke says the elimination of the legislative body’s freedom to assemble destroys its political authority and puts an end to this government (409). The third way to alter the legislative occurs when the prince or the supreme executive changes the election process, contrary to the common will of the people. This new election process creates an illegitimate legislative because it alters the people’s power to elect representatives without their consent (409). The final way to alter the legislative that Locke mentions is the subjection of the people to a foreign power. He says that the authority of a foreign power expels the political independence and eliminates the legislative body of a nation (409-410). In Locke’s argument, these four ways alter the legislative and justify the dissolution of government. Altering the legislative in the sense that Locke intended is not directly related to his theoretical support of the civil rights movement. The injustice that the African Americans faced did not stem from changes within the American government but instead the failure to protect natural rights. The President did not alter the election process, and a foreign nation did not seize political authority. However, the civil rights struggle presented an example of altering the balance of legislative power in times of conflict. The Governor of Mississippi refused to allow James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi and to integrate this public university, ignoring the orders of President Kennedy. He claimed that the state legislatures, and not the federal government, have control over state universities. In refusing to acknowledge the orders of the President, the Governor of Mississippi altered the legislative in the sense that he placed his office and the state legislature above the chief executive in this conflict. Locke would argue that the governor’s claim to power above the orders of the federal government was illegitimate and altered the balance of legislative power, justifying resistance. He would support the use of the armed National Guard by President Kennedy to restore order and to destroy the illegitimate claims made by the Governor of Mississippi. This change in the balance of power shows Locke’s theoretical support of the civil rights movement, but it would not produce his central argument for supporting the civil disobedience of the movement.

The crux of Locke’s support of the civil rights movement is the second condition: that citizens can dissolve an unlawful government if it acts contrary to the trust of the people. This breach of trust occurs when the government violates the natural rights of its people (412). Locke says that a magistrate who destroys the property of his constituents and attempts to enslave them under his arbitrary power places himself in the state of war and forfeits his legitimate power. In this state of war, the constituents no longer have an obligation to obey the magistrate, and they can defend themselves from any unlawful intrusion into their natural rights (412). Locke states: “People are absolved from obedience, when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties and properties, and may oppose the unlawful violence, when [magistrates] invade their properties contrary to the trust put in them” (416-417). The magistrate has violated the trust of the citizens because he chooses not to honor his obligation to protect their life, liberty, and property. According to Locke, unlawful force that violates natural rights justifies government resistance (413). The civil rights movement is a practical application of this second condition of Locke’s theory. The “Jim Crow” laws, which attempted to subordinate and to oppress African Americans in society, are an example of the unlawful intrusion into natural rights. These laws broke the trust between African Americans and the government because they failed to protect liberty and to uphold equality. Moreover, these unjust laws were paradoxical in the sense that segregationists attempted to justify them. For example, the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson stated that segregation was constitutional under the premise of “separate but equal.” Nevertheless, segregating education did not prove to be equal because the African American schools were often poorly funded and could not provide the same education as most white schools. These attempts to justify segregation did not eliminate the unlawful subjugation of African American citizens. According to the crux of Locke’s argument, the “Jim Crow” laws do not have legitimate authority by reason of this breach of trust. Locke would support the resistance to such laws on the grounds that these laws are contrary to the trust of the African Americans and violate their natural rights. Despite this right to resist unjust government practices, Locke limits the cases in which a political revolution may occur. He states that small errors-such as “little mismanagement in public affairs,” mistakes made by the ruler, and many “wrong and inconvenient” laws-do not justify the overthrow of a government. Locke argues that the citizens must tolerate these errors “without mutiny or murmur” (415). However, extreme injustices, suffered over an extended period of time, justify a revolution, according to Locke. He says that these long-term grievances create a society that is worse than the state of nature, in which no legitimate political bonds exist. Thus, the citizens have the right to construct a new political system that restores the trust between the people and the government (415). The African Americans of the civil rights movement are an example of the long-term struggles and grievances that justify resistance in Locke’s argument. For over five hundred years, they faced political oppression and enslavement. The government dehumanized the African Americans, referring to them as property rather than as human beings. This political oppression and enslavement excluded them from the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal.” Moreover, the “Jim Crow” laws continued to subjugate the African Americans one hundred years after the abolition of slavery. According to Locke’s theory, this long-term and deep-rooted subordination of the African Americans justifies resistance to illegitimate domination. The African Americans’ right to resist any further oppression or subjugation forms the grounds for Locke’s theoretical support of the civil rights movement. How does an oppressed person, like the African Americans, respond to illegitimate domination and the breach of trust? Locke answers that he responds with armed resistance. He states that those “who may resist, must be allowed to strike” (421). The breach of trust reduces the citizen and the magistrate into a state of war, which cancels the reverence, respect, and superiority of the magistrate’s position. In this primitive state, the citizen has the right to defend himself by all means necessary, including the use of armed resistance (422). Locke says that the oppressed citizen may respond in this fashion because his liberty and property are at stake. Failure to arm himself against this unlawful force may deprive him of his independence (425). Locke’s support of armed resistance suggests that he would support the militant civil rights organizations, such as the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers were not a separatist organization-they did not believe that the African American community should separate from the white establishment-but they did advocate armed resistance to state institutions that unjustly persecuted African Americans. For example, they wanted the African Americans to take up arms in order to defend themselves from police brutality and to protect their communities. Locke would support the Black Panthers because they used armed resistance in order to protect their natural rights from unlawful intrusion. The nonviolent disobedience that constituted the civil rights movement certainly did not take up arms, like the Black Panthers, in its resistance to racial inequality; however, the movement offered an active resistance to unlawful authority. The March on Washington, political rallies, and sit-ins are examples of the active, yet peaceful, resistance to racial segregation. While Locke does not specifically express his opinion on nonviolent resistance, he supports any means possible to oppose an unjust government (425). Therefore, he would support the nonviolent disobedience that constituted the civil rights movement based on its opposition to the illegitimate authority of the “Jim Crow” laws. Locke would support armed and active methods to resist unlawful authority and the violation of natural rights. In the Second Treatise, Locke clearly develops his theory on the resistance to government. He would support the civil rights movement and the African Americans’ right to defend themselves from the illegitimate authority of segregation laws. Ironically, Locke’s argument is a double-edged sword-it is conservative in one sense and radical in the other. The limitations that Locke puts on opposing a government make his argument conservative because he realizes that dissolving a government is uncommon and often unlikely. He points out that people are by nature politically passive and unwilling to challenge a legislative body. However, his theory is radical in the sense that it allows oppressed citizens to resist unjust laws. On the grounds of protecting natural rights, Locke would support the civil rights movement in its resistance to “Jim Crow” laws. His theoretical support of this movement shows that the right to resist is radical but necessary for the African Americans to defend their natural rights against unjust intrusion.


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