Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy of Resistance
This article was substantially edited to reflect recent events.
In the last few years, the true scale of police brutality against Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) has been revealed to the American public. The death of Trayvon Martin spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew to prominence as a seemingly endless procession of Black people were killed by people in law enforcement: Freddy Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, to name a few.
Over the course of 2020, protests featuring up to 26 million people exploded across the US in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The vast majority of the protests were peaceful even as police intimidated and attacked groups exercising their constitutional rights.
Peaceful protesting has a long history in the US. Martin Luther King Jr., in particular, championed peaceful protesting to help secure civil rights for Black people.
Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks at a demonstration in New York City.
Peaceful protesting doesn't mean quietly walking down a street, doing your best to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. It means boldly challenging the status quo without resorting to violence. King insisted that violence is a vicious cycle that could undermine the movement. When violence does happen, he warned, it's used to discredit righteous demands.
Peaceful protesters during the civil rights era dismantled some institutional racism in the US by insisting, day after day, on its injustice. These same protesters were also regularly assaulted by mobs, attacked by police batons and dogs, beaten in all sorts of ways, viciously harassed and pressured to give up.
But they persevered. Against endless provocations, King and millions of other protesters remained steadfastly peaceful.
Here are four times when King’s brand of peaceful protest led to positive change:
1/ Montgomery, Alabama / 1955, 1956
In the winter of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was forcibly removed, which set off a massive boycott of the city’s public transportation system.
Within months, the city was struggling financially. White supremacist began to violently retalliate, even throwing a firebomb firebomb at King’s home.
Eventually, the issue wound its way to a federal court which ruled that the segregation of public transportation was unconstitutional. This was then affirmed by the Supreme Court.
2/ Birmingham, Ala. / 1963
King called for sit-ins and marches to end discriminatory economic policies in Birmingham, such as the refusal of white business owners to hire Black people and the segregation of commercial and public spaces.
His intent was to overwhelm the jails and disrupt local governance. As protests were held, black people were abused and ostracized. After about two months, the city conceded to the protesters and many of the hateful policies of local businesses were repealed.
3/ Washington, 1963
Even today, there are huge disparities in opportunity between Black people and white people.
In the 1960s these disparities were legally enforced. In response, King helped to organize one of the largest marches in US history. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom attracted hundreds of thousands of people and it was here that King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech and the march helped to pave the way for the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
4/ New York, 1967
King’s compassion was seemingly all-encompassing. He was concerned not just with the liberation of Black people in the US, but with people everywhere.
So in a speech in 1967, he blasted the Vietnam War, accusing the US of being the “biggest purveyor of violence in the world.”
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ ”
King knew that many fake allies with power would turn against him, but he insisted on the evil nature of the war. Ultimately, King’s words became a driving force behind the movement to withdraw from Vietnam.
Throughout US history, Black Lives Matter protests have resisted and condemned state-sanctioned violence against Black people. They're fundamentally about liberation from a violent system. They envision a world of reparations, harmony, and love. In this way, they model the basic tenets of a peaceful society.