Which has made more of an impact on American society and politics in the years since 1945?

Law (a loanword from Old Norse lag), in politics and jurisprudence, is a set of rules or norms of conduct which mandate, proscribe or permit specified relationships among people and organizations, provide methods for ensuring the impartial treatment of such people, and provide punishments for those who do not follow the established rules of conduct.

Lawlessness is synonymous with disobedience. Disobedience is man’s original virtue, and it is through disobedience that progress has been made (Walker et al, 1996, p. xii). Princeton University’s WorldNet (2005) dictionary defines lawlessness as anarchy with the premise of disorder usually resulting from a failure of government, where as the Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines it as “1) contrary to or without regard for the law…2) being without law; uncontrolled by a law; unbridled; unruly; unrestrained” (2006).

In terms of lawlessness as unrestrained behavior, uncontrolled by a law compared to the jurisprudence of “law,” clearly lawlessness has had the greatest impact on American society and politics since 1945.

One common impact through the years since 1945 has been racial tension and hatred, of which Bloom & Breines (2003) vividly illustrate through stories of freedom, independence, mobs, and anarchy. In Taking it to the streets (Bloom & Breines, 2003) the authors state: “Such leaders are most often men of good will who do not condone violence and, perhaps even now, see no relation between the civil disobedience which they counsel and the riots and violence which have erupted. Yet, once the decision is made that laws need not be obeyed -whatever the rationale -a contribution is made to a climate of lawlessness” (p. 340).

Concerning the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the President commented, urging “every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King…We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people” (2003, p. 424). Violence is the forefront for lawlessness, as this paper will support. The example of Dr. King’s murder, the War in Vietnam, multiple student movements for peace and nonviolent action in times of conflict, among others indicate that Americans want better circumstances, better obedience of the laws that govern this nation. However, just as the “law” does not instill refrain in those who commit crimes, the law cannot remove or eradicate lawlessness altogether.

The Civil Rights Movement has had a vast impact on lawlessness. In fact, in the years after 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worked to move to the center of the civil rights struggle, embracing positions more radical than its predecessors. SNCC drew college students from all over the country — black and white, male and female, northern and southern — into the civil rights movement (Bloom & Breines, 2003). Conflicts over race flowed over into welfare issues, including that of the welfare rights movement. According to Davis (1993), along with black liberation, the New Left, and feminism, the welfare rights movement engendered and brought into popular consciousness expanded notions of rights and participatory democracy.

 Changes were influenced by ideologies of liberation, as well as programs devised through the war on poverty. It was during this time that low-income women campaigned to address their needs. According to the 1970 federal census, almost 17 percent of District residents’ incomes fell below the federal poverty line; among these, African American women outnumbered white women by three times. In such a setting, welfare activists’ rhetoric and demands, as well as policy makers’ reactions, reflected the interconnections among race, class, and gender. Although the political and economic context of Washington was unique, the D.C. welfare rights movement resembled those in other cities in terms of its origin, tactics, and intensity.

As Davis (2003) suggests, recipients of public assistance were conscious of and angered by the ways the welfare system acted as a form of social control. Recipient-activists demanded not only increased funds, but also insisted that self-determination and participation in shaping policies would permit them to be better mothers. The demands of activists were two-fold: justified and lawlessly enacted.

In Civil Disobedience (Walker et al, 1996), frequent references to Locke’s theory of exalting the law is expounded. Walker et al promotes the Lockian principle of the sanctity of the rule of law (p. 13) while working toward undermining the lawless nature of man. Bay makes a strong case for exalting the law from his “own political ground of commitment to no system, but to the sanctity of [the law itself]” (p. 14).

“My point of departure is essentially Locke’s: respect for the rule of law, or for the democratic processes that produce our laws…” (Walker et al 1996, p. 15)

As Bay explains (p. 17), the chances are that most of those who practice civil disobedience think of their behavior as “civil” in a sense, whether articulated or not. Taking Walker’s comment in conjunction with historical events (e.g. Civil Rights Movement, Welfare Movement, liberation, war, fight against poverty, et al) a clear distinction between civil disobedience and lawlessness is drawn.

While this paper places much emphasis on the continuing struggle between whites and blacks, historical evidence demonstrates that violence and lawlessness have always been a part of American life and have involved many of the groups that constitute American society (Young Americans for Freedom, 1998, p. 290; Malcom X, 1998, p. 106; Regan, 1998, p. 299).

Throughout its history, America has been a lawless and violent nation. Race riots and bombings, although they are particularly dramatic manifestations of conflict, have claimed fewer lives than many other varieties of violence, individual or social. There are more criminal homicides in some American metropolises every year than there have been deaths from all the urban race riots of the twentieth century combined (Horwitz, 1998). A few famous feuds and some important labor disputes have rolled up casualty lists that compare in length with the most spectacular interracial disorders.

Social violence and lawlessness in general, have not been phenomena expressed only in interracial relations in this country. However, lawlessness has lead to many positive outcomes whereby martyrs for their cause (e.g. M.L King, Jr, et al) have left legacies of constructive action. One such change has been apparent in the referenced group, SNCC, whereas love is the focus.

“Generations of Southerners yet unborn will cherish our memory because they will realize that the fight we now wage will have preserved for them their untainted racial heritage, their culture, and the institutions of the Anglo-Saxon race.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1969)

King meant what he said about countering such sentiments with Christian charity: “In our struggle for justice, even Senator Eastland is a child of God, although at times a straying one” (Ibid). King held tight to the principle of nonviolence and “the more excellent way of love” (Ibid). Turning the other cheek, loving them that hate you: as events would prove, and as King himself would acknowledge in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” this feat may have been possible for individuals, but for groups it was next to impossible.

By August 1963, even as people were boarding buses in New York to travel to the March on Washington, some blacks, we read, were turning on whites with “We don’t need any white liberals to patronize us!” and “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don’t need your kind. Get out of our organization.” Two years later, during the Watts riots, we hear one black telling another: “We going to get every white motherf–ker comes down this street.” By then, the campaign against segregation was falling victim to black nationalism and reverse segregation as years of slavery and Jim Crow laws were being avenged (a prime example of lawlessness).

Lawlessness in America since 1945 has led to a number of changes in the way the “law” works as a whole. A significant change in the system became apparent under the enactment of the USA Patriot Act (H. R. 3162, 2001) whereby under new regulations law enforcement carry out surveillance without even the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing. The government has also announced a new program to further enhance its capacity for surveillance, by encouraging private citizens to report on the “suspicious activity” of other people. In today’s American setting, lawlessness is most prevalent in hate crimes and in terrorist threats.

In the coming years, Americans can expect to hear more about terrorist activity, even in smaller more diverse settings. The initial onset of the war in Iraq (the events of 9/11) has proven that such radical groups are not afraid of retribution. The main goal of these groups is to complete their mission. The aftermath and the effects such actions may have on their individual groups and country of origin is of no concern to them. Lawlessness is their mission.


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King, Jr., M. L. (1969). Letter from Birmingham Jail, in Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice, ed. Hugo Adam Bedau. New York: Pegasus, 72-89. Malcolm X (2003). The Ballot or the Bullet, in Bloom, A. & Breines, W.  Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader. Oxford University  Press: New York, 105-108. Random House Unabridged Dictionary Reagan, R. (2003). Freedom vs. Anarchy on Campus, in Bloom, A. & Breines, W. Takin’ It to             the Streets: A Sixties Reader. Oxford University Press: New York, 297-299. (2003). SNCC: Founding Statement, in Bloom, A. & Breines, W.. Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader.

Oxford University Press: New York, 21-22. Taylor, W. L. (1996). “Civil Disobedience: Observations on the Strategies of Protest,” in Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice, 98-105. Tweed, H., & Segal, B. G. et al (1996). “Civil Rights and Disobedience to Law,” in Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice, 90-97. Walker, C. C. & Bay, C. (1996). Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice.

Black Rose Books: Montreal, 13-22. WordNet® 2.1, © 2005 Princeton University Young Americans for Freedom (2003). The Sharon Statement, in Bloom, A. & Breines, W. Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader. Oxford University Press: New York., 290-91.