The risks taken by the leaders of the civil rights movement who engaged in what was called civil disobedience were the same as for those members of the movement who worked in the shadows: imprisonment, physical violence, murder.
The civil rights movement had a number of leaders who engaged in civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, as was Medgar Evers. The late Congressman John Lewis was beaten and left with permanent scars in his head. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Henry Schwerner were not high-profile leaders of the civil rights movement but were nevertheless kidnapped and murdered for the crime of working for civil rights for African Americans. These are only some of the more prominent names of martyrs killed in the struggle for civil rights. Many more lesser-known names could be added to the list. The point is that the path of civil disobedience can be exceptionally dangerous for its practitioners.
The concept of civil disobedience is inherently dangerous, as it posits opposition to authority, and authority will invariably seek its own survival. Civil disobedience targets laws deemed unjust or laws that are just but poorly executed and enforced. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” The distinction between law and justice is important, as laws reflect the will of those in power and that power may be wielded injudiciously. In the case of the civil rights movement, the need for civil disobedience arose from the violations of human rights that were endemic across much of America. As one of the classic examples of the risks faced by civil rights leaders engaged in civil disobedience, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
King, of course, would walk out of that jail cell; he would later pay with his life. Not all those who partook in acts of civil disobedience paid such a price. Those who integrated lunch counters or refused to relinquish their seats on city buses to white passengers often walked away unscathed, at least physically. The risks, however, were substantial.