Civil Disobedience from Antigone to Hunger Games

Study the concepts and practice of civil disobedience through fiction and nonfiction texts.

By Elijah Ammen

hands reaching through a jail wall

Civil disobedience is not a 20th century concept. It is not unique to Henry David Thoreau, Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil disobedience has been around as long as there has been oppressive government, with examples of peaceful nonviolent resistance beginning even in Greek mythology. 

As teachers, our job is to educate kids across the curriculum. If a learner thinks only in blocks of English, history, and government, he will never become an independent and critically thinking citizen. Examining civil disobedience across a variety of genres and centuries will help students evaluate it as a system of peaceful protest.


Historical Context for Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience in the modern sense can be attributed to the essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau. Your class needs to know the theoretical basis for the system because although it is a practice that can be shown throughout history, it never became a widespread alternative to violent revolution until the civil rights movements in India and the USA. Students need to compare and contrast this system with violent revolutions throughout history and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems.

The next step is connecting the theoretical knowledge of the movement to the practical application in different modern countries. They can examine civil disobedience in the civil rights movement spearheaded by MLK. They can also write a persuasive essay on the beliefs of Ghandi and his concept of Satyagraha

They can also take all three men—Thoreau, Ghandi, and King—and compare and contrast the different ways they implemented the same essential social movement by creating a skit, digital story, or analysis paper. 

Nonfiction Works That Incorporate Civil Disobedience

With The Butler pulling in $92 million (and counting) at the box office, stories of the civil rights movement that are based on factual accounts are clearly in popular demand. Take advantage of the bump in interest and point your readers to texts like Warriors Don't Crya firsthand account of school integration. Have your class recreate the experience through character journals and newspaper articles in this lesson plan. 

Another great nonfiction text is Freedom Riders (though you should be careful, because saying this out loud sounds like Freedom Writers and causes confusion). This is a great text to teach primary and secondary sources by reading the accounts of people who faced violence as they attempted to travel on buses in order to protest segregation. 

Fiction Work That Portray Civil Disobedience

Now that you have established the historical and nonfiction accounts of civil disobedience, fiction helps place the familiar concept of civil disobedience in a new and unusual setting. 

A classic text to use is Antigonewhere Antigone's choice to go against the will of the king and bury her brother led to her eventual death, but in almost Shakespearean fashion, pointed out the flaw of hubris. Students can show how Antigone's resistance to Creon showed the nation that the ruler is not always right and that it is a citizen's obligation to do what is correct above obeying corrupt laws.

Another great text (since most kids are already familiar with it) is The Hunger Games trilogy. There is a variety of ways that the districts rebel against the Capitol—both violent and nonviolent. Your class can compare similarities, such as when peaceful protesters were beaten and killed for the three-fingered salute in Katniss' honor. They can also compare which system was more effective—the violent war in Mockingjay, or the peaceful resistance that changed the hearts and minds of the citizens. 

Other classic dystopian novels are Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. In both, the protagonists are confronted with government restrictions on how they should think and consume information. In both, the characters choose not to react violently, but to expand their minds and use knowledge to combat the oppressive regimes. Tragically, in 1984, we have the most heartbreaking closing sentence of a novel, but in Fahrenheit 451, we see success as the violent system destroys itself and makes way for a new system.