Today, Americans around the country are celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the fight to end a century of state-sanctioned discrimination against African-Americans and protect their constitutional rights, King also became a pioneer of grassroots tactics.
Charting a Path of Nonviolence
When King began his involvement in the fight for civil rights, the movement was divided over the best approach to ensuring equal rights for minorities. Some called for direct action and even violence as a response to the racism and oppression they faced.
King disagreed. He called for nonviolence and urged his fellow activists to love their enemies instead of returning evil for evil. “Love has within it a redemptive power,” he said. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Loving Your Enemies
To King, love meant more than nonviolence—it meant loving someone enough to show them they were wrong. He saw the sit-ins, boycotts and marches as a loving way to change hearts and minds. “You love your enemies to the point that you’re willing to sit-in at a lunch counter in order to help them find themselves,” King once told a reporter.
King’s nonviolent approach was also instrumental in gaining sympathy and support from those on the sidelines. The images of police brutality, the footage of angry crowds screaming at students on their way to school and the stories of everyday bravery helped inspire a nationwide movement.
Pioneering Grassroots Tactics
In his letter to pastors written from a jail in Birmingham, Ala., King laid out his approach to a nonviolent campaign. First, activists need to gather the facts about injustice. Once they have the facts, they approach those in power to discuss how everyone can work together to end those injustices. If that fails, activists need to begin discussing how they will use direct action and make sure they are ready for the fight ahead.
When King launched direct action campaigns, he and his fellow activists took steps to make sure they were as effective as possible. They partnered with local organizations like churches, community organizations and civil rights groups. They chose their battles carefully for maximum impact. And they made sure to use positive rhetoric about freedom and justice that would resonate with people.
Honoring King’s Legacy
King faced down death threats, assassination attempts, imprisonment and more because he believed that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He dreamed of a day when the rights enshrined in our Constitution were applied to all people, and where oppression and discrimination of others would be a thing of the past.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” he declared in his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Today, the fight for King’s dream continues. His life serves not only as a model for how to lead grassroots movements, but as an inspiration for activists around the country continuing the fight for freedom.