Lesson 1: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance

"I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." So wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963 as he served a ten-day jail term for violating a court injunction against any "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" in Birmingham. He came to Alabama's largest city to lead an Easter weekend protest and boycott of downtown stores as a way of forcing white city leaders to negotiate a settlement of black citizens' grievances. King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in response to a public statement by eight white clergymen appealing to the local black population to use the courts and not the streets to secure civil rights. The clergymen counseled "law and order and common sense," not demonstrations that "incite to hatred and violence," as the most prudent means to promote justice. This criticism of King was elaborated the following year by a fellow Baptist minister, Joseph H. Jackson (president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953–1982), who delivered a speech counseling blacks to reject "direct confrontation" and "stick to law and order."

By examining King's famous essay in defense of nonviolent protest, along with two significant criticisms of his direct action campaign, this lesson will help students assess various alternatives for securing civil rights for black Americans in a self-governing society.

Guiding Questions

Was King's nonviolent resistance to segregation laws the best means of securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to: Explain Martin Luther King, Jr.'s concept of nonviolent resistance and the role of civil disobedience within it.

Articulate the primary concerns of the Alabama clergymen who rejected King's intervention in Birmingham's racial conflicts in 1963.

Describe how King defended his nonviolent campaign to the Alabama clergymen.

Explain why the president of the National Baptist Convention, Joseph H. Jackson, thought King's protest methods were unproductive and un-American, and articulate the alternatives he recommended to secure civil rights for black Americans.

Evaluate the merits of the argument on both sides of the debate and decide which view could best secure civil rights for black Americans.