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Martin Luther King and peaceful protest. What did Martin Luther King’s tactics involve?. MLK espoused a philosophy of civil disobedience. He often broke the unjust laws of the de jure discrimination. He encouraged mass support for these actions.

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martin luther king and peaceful protest

Martin Luther King and peaceful protest

What did Martin Luther King’s tactics involve?

MLK espoused a philosophy of civil disobedience. He often broke the unjust laws of the de jure discrimination. He encouraged mass support for these actions.
  • He insisted that no resistance should be offered to those who tried to stop them, whatever the treatment meted out.
  • He believed in integration – that all should live together, whatever their colour.
  • There were many influences led him to this set of beliefs. These included:
  • The example of Gandhi in India.
  • His personal background and the influences of Christianity.
  • The fact that passive resistance was likely to reduce the threat of violence and therefore encourage greater participation in the movement by ordinary people.
  • That where there were violent responses, the attendant publicity would undermine those who opposed civil rights and encourage support for the protestors.
the greensboro sit in
The Greensboro sit-in

This started in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 when four black college students sat down and ordered food at a whites-only counter in Woolworth’s.

  • Others joined these four students so that the scale of the protest grew rapidly and eventually the store was forced to close.
  • What was the importance of this?
  • The idea of this sort of protest spread very quickly – to six more states within a month – and attracted massive support.
To co-ordinate the movement, a new organisation was set up. This was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This worked with MLK’s SCLC to extend the range of the movement e.g. wade-ins at segregated swimming pools.
  • The principle of non-violence was actively pursued. Even when protesters were attacked they did not retaliate. The televising of some of these incidents once again reinforced northern white sympathies for the position of southern blacks.
  • Some progress was made towards the desegregation of public facilities in some states such as Texas and Tennessee although the Deep South remained unaffected.
legislation in the eisenhower years
Legislation in the Eisenhower years
  • Eisenhower introduced two Civil Rights Acts in his second term in office. Both were watered down in order to get them through Congress.
  • The 1957 Civil Rights Act established a Civil Rights Commission for two years and a Civil Rights Division to investigate attempts to stop blacks voting.

President Eisenhower signing the 1957 Civil Rights Act


The 1960 Civil Rights Act extended the life of the Civil Rights Commission and introduced federal court referees whose responsibility was to help register blacks in areas where they had previously found it difficult to register.

  • Although the content of the legislation was limited, it was the first new federal legislation designed to protect the rights of black citizens since Reconstruction and as such, marked a significant shift in attitude.
advances during the kennedy presidency 1961 3
Advances during the Kennedy presidency (1961-3)
  • JFK was a Democratic Party President. He had won the 1960 Election by a very narrow margin and faced a Congress that was conservative, especially on the issue of civil rights. He was also aware of the white southern wing of his party and would try not to alienate them too far.
freedom rides
Freedom Rides
  • These represented the continuance of the policy of non-violent protest. They were organised in 1961 by CORE.
  • They were designed to test the violation of the 1960 Supreme Court case of Boynton v Virginia that had declared segregation in bus and train stations that were used for inter-state transport as unconstitutional.
Groups of black and white ‘freedom riders’ intended to travel from Washington DC to New Orleans. They found themselves subjected to considerable violence by southerners.
  • In Anniston, Alabama, they were violently attacked and the bus they were riding was firebombed. Once more this provided evidence to liberal northerners of the attitudes that prevailed in the south and encouraged sympathy for their cause.
  • Eventually, in response to the failure of southern police to control the violence, Kennedy sent in federal marshals and requested the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce Boynton v Virginia.
james meredith
James Meredith
  • The right of James Meredith, a black student, to attend ‘Ole Miss’ (the University of Mississippi) was upheld by a federal court in the autumn of 1962.
  • Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi, defied this order, so Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General sent federal marshals to uphold Meredith’s right to attendance.
  • Meredith’s arrival at “Ole Miss” was accompanied by rioting in which two onlookers were killed and hundreds were injured. Kennedy had to send in federal troops to re-establish order and uphold Meredith’s right to attendance.
the albany movement
The Albany Movement
  • This grew out of the arrest of the Freedom Riders in Albany, Georgia. During 1961 – 62 MLK and other leading civil rights activists visited the town to lead protests and meetings demanding an end to segregation. The tactics pursued were entirely those of non-violence.
  • The Albany movement failed to trigger any significant change in Albany and revealed two problems that faced the civil rights movement.

The first problem was that non-violence would not necessarily work unless the white response to it was violent. In Albany, Laurie Pritchett, the chief of police understood that he needed to prevent any white violence, which limited the media interest and hence the effectiveness of the non-violent strategy.

The second problem was that the various civil rights groups (most notably SNCC, NAACP and SCLC) had different approaches to the most appropriate tactics to pursue and were not following a common policy of co-operation.

  • Many remember the nightmare of seeing Bull Connor riding through the streets perched a top of an armored tank, yelling through a bullhorn, " Break up this demonstration now! I'll demonstrate your Black asses all the way to the jailhouse! You Niggers get on home now and get off my streets before I make you sorry you ever came here!"
The momentum of the civil rights movement had been lost at Albany and MLK aimed to regain this at Birmingham in 1963. He hoped that by engaging in acts of non-violence, a confrontation with white racists would be triggered that would lead to action by the Kennedy administration.
  • A range of demonstrations demanding an end to segregation in Birmingham were organised. At each demonstration, protesters were arrested and the jails of Birmingham began to fill up.
  • MLK was among those who were arrested. While he was in prison, he wrote the ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’. This clearly set out his reasons for the use of non-violence.
The decision was taken to include children in the marches at Birmingham. This coincided with the decision of Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the Chief of Police of Birmingham, to take more drastic action to deter the marchers.
  • The Birmingham police subjected the marchers to a range of physical attacks. They came under fire from high-pressure water hoses and police dogs attacked them. The photographs that appeared in the media of children being attacked were highly damaging to those who wished to protect segregation at all costs.

The consequence of the events at Birmingham was that there was some end to discrimination – there was to be desegregation in the stores and greater rights in employment.

  • Furthermore, the events in Birmingham had persuaded JFK of the need for federal intervention in civil rights in order to prevent a complete breakdown in law and order.
On August 28th 1963, the largest civil rights demonstration in American history took place. Over 200,000 protesters, black and white, from across the entire range of civil rights pressure groups, marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
  • MLK addressed the crowd with his emotional and memorable ‘I have a dream’ speech.
  • The event confirmed Kennedy’s decision to move towards civil rights legislation. He was beginning to initiate this when he was assassinated in November 1963. However, in real terms, the period of the Kennedy administration saw little advancement in the position of black Americans.
advances during the johnson presidency 1963 69
Advances during the Johnson presidency (1963-69)
  • Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President after Kennedy’s assassination. He was re-elected in his own right in 1964.
  • Johnson brought with him a number of advantages that were to aid the passage of civil rights legislation in the early years of his Presidency.
The mood of the country was favourable to the idea of civil rights legislation as a memorial to Kennedy. Johnson exploited this mood.
  • This mood was further reinforced by the ongoing acts of southern violence that outraged popular opinion e.g. in the six months before Kennedy’s assassination, Medgar Evers had been murdered in Mississippi and four black children had been killed while attending Sunday School in Birmingham.
Johnson had been involved in national politics for over twenty years and for ten of these he had been the Democratic leader in the Senate. He therefore had a very clear understanding of the politics of Congress and he used this to good effect to create the coalitions that were necessary to implement his legislation.
  • In July 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. It aimed to eliminate the racial injustice that had been experienced by blacks since Reconstruction. Among its key terms were the following elements:
  • Segregation in public places and facilities was banned. The desegregation of schools was to be speeded up by the intervention of the Attorney General.
  • Discrimination in the hiring, firing and paying of workers was prohibited.
  • It was made more difficult to use devices such as literacy tests to exclude blacks from voting.
  • Any programme that received federal assistance was forbidden to discriminate against blacks.
  • In the same year as the Civil Rights Act was passed, the twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution was ratified. This outlawed the use of the poll tax in federal elections, thus removing a device that had been used to legally exclude blacks from voting.
freedom summer
Freedom Summer
  • In the summer of 1964, SNCC organised a campaign of voter registration in Mississippi, the state with the lowest level of black registration.
  • Both black and white students came to Mississippi from the north to take part in this campaign. All were subjected to white resistance and violence, most notably in Neshoba County where three civil rights workers (two white and one black) were murdered. This act again confirmed white liberal opinion regarding the injustices of southern racism.
selma alabama
Selma, Alabama
  • In early 1965, MLK joined the campaign to increase voter registration in the south. Selma was selected because only 1% of its black population were registered to vote.
  • There were several months of demonstrations and attempts at registration in which a number of black protesters were arrested. Sheriff Jim Clark was seen on camera behaving in a brutal fashion towards the non-violent demonstrators.
The climax of the campaign was to be a march from Selma to Montgomery. The first attempt was violently broken up. This led to a federal order to allow the march which went ahead protected by the National Guard.
  • The positive result of the events at Selma was that it led both Johnson and popular opinion to the view that further legislation was necessary. Thus, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed.
  • Literacy tests and all other devices that had been used in the past to prevent blacks from voting were outlawed.
  • Federal examiners were to investigate registration in areas of low registration.
However, after Selma, problems for the civil rights movement began to emerge.
  • The various strands that comprised the movement were increasingly disagreeing over tactics leading to a breakdown in co-operation between them.
  • The problems of the de jure discrimination such as segregation and disenfranchisement (not having the right to vote) appeared to have been resolved through legislation, but poverty and de facto discrimination among blacks remained entrenched.
  • It was clear that the tactics of non-violence might not find a ready audience in the north and west – only five days after the Voting Rights Act was passed, the Watts riots had erupted in Los Angeles leaving thirty-four dead.
  • Selma therefore marked the end of the “southern” phase of the civil rights movement. De jure discrimination had been addressed; now the focus shifted to de facto discrimination and the north.
  • In 1966, MLK took his tactics of non-violence to the north to try to address the problem of de facto segregation. Chicago was selected as the target.
  • There were significant problems to be surmounted in making this transition from the south to the north. King had not fully thought through the tactics he intended to use and Richard Daley, the Mayor of Chicago, was unlikely to react to demonstrations in the same way as Connor or Clark.
  • The divisions between the SCLC and local Chicago activists made organisation difficult. When demonstrators entered an area in which whites lived they were faced by racist abuse and violence.
  • In the face of the disturbances, Daley made vague commitments to promoting integrated housing, but the reality was that little changed in Chicago.
  • In the aftermath of his failure in Chicago, King turned in other directions. His concerns became increasingly focused on the economic plight of the poor of all races and at the time of his death in 1968 he was planning a ‘Poor People’s March’. In the meantime, the civil rights movement had moved in new and different directions.