Photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Credit: Courtesy of the National Archives
This lesson introduces students to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence and the teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi that influenced King's views. After considering the political impact of this philosophy, students explore its relevance to personal life.
Set the stage for this lesson by having students read a brief selection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s writings on nonviolence, available through EDSITEment at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project website:
Begin your class discussion by looking at photographs of nonviolent protest during the civil rights era. Ask students to compare the practice of nonviolence, shown in the photographs, with the philosophy King outlines. To what extent do such images illustrate the concept of nonviolence as King explains it? Are there aspects of his philosophy that cannot be captured in a photograph? (For example, motive, moral commitment, historical context.) By the same token, do such photographs reveal any aspects of nonviolent action that King's philosophy overlooks? (For example, physical danger, explosive emotion, violence.) Images available through EDSITEment include:
Follow your comparison of nonviolence in theory and practice with a class discussion of King's writings. Focus on the moral framework of King's thought and the dynamic element within nonviolence that led King to describe it as "soul force." Ask students:
In his writings on nonviolence, Dr. King frequently acknowledged the influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who led nonviolent campaigns against racial discrimination in South Africa and later against British colonial rule in India. Introduce students to this important social activist and compare his concept of nonviolent action -- satyagraha (sah-yah-grah-hah) -- with King's.
In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered, in the earliest stages, that pursuit of Truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one's opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For what appears to be truth to one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of Truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but one's own self.
Satyagraha and its off-shoots, non-cooperation and civil resistance, are nothing but new names for the law of suffering.
. . .
The movement of nonviolent non-cooperation has nothing in common with the historical struggles for freedom in the West. It is not based on brute force or hatred. It does not aim at destroying the tyrant. It is a movement of self-purification. It therefore seeks to convert the tyrant.... The essence of nonviolent technique is that it seeks to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists themselves. In nonviolent fight you have, to a certain measure, to conform to the tradition and conventions of the system you are pitted against. Avoidance of all relationship with the opposing power, therefore, can never be a Satyagrahi's object but transformation or purification of that relationship.
How do Gandhi's ideas compare to Dr. King's? Where does King seem to follow Gandhi's teachings, and where does he differ? Point out their agreement that nonviolence succeeds by transforming the relationship between antagonists and that it's strength lies in the individual's commitment to truth and justice. Yet Gandhi seems to emphasize a need for personal suffering in the practice of nonviolence, a posture that is somewhat less militant than King's call to self-sacrifice. And there is a similar difference between Gandhi's belief that nonviolence achieves its goals through patience and non-cooperation and King's belief that it takes "creative tension" and a degree of confrontation to accomplish change. Remind students as you explore these two philosophies that your aim is not to decide who is right and who is wrong. Both Gandhi and King proved their ideas in practice by leading nonviolent social revolutions that shattered the law of oppression in their countries. While admiring them both, however, one can still recognize that they offer two approaches to the practice of nonviolence, one rooted in opposition, the other in protest.
Conclude this lesson by asking students to consider how nonviolence might be relevant to their own lives. To what degree can we practice this philosophy of social change at a personal level? Explore this question by staging a "talk show" in class. Have two students play Gandhi and King as the day's guests, and take the role of talk show host yourself. You might focus your discussion on violence in school, antagonism between groups of students, or interpersonal conflict. Have students in the "audience" describe situations in their lives that illustrate these issues, and have your "guests" offer practical suggestions for handling them. How do ideas like non-cooperation and creative tension, suffering and self-sacrifice translate into everyday actions? Follow-up this discussion by having students write a short essay on the philosophy of nonviolence and what we can learn from it today.
As a companion to Gandhi and King, have students investigate the career of Nelson Mandela, who led the fight against apartheid in South Africa and finally emerged from more than a quarter century in prison to become the president of his country. Excerpts from Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom are accessible through the African Studies WWW website on EDSITEment, which also provides a link to the African National Conference Home Page, where you can access an Archive of historical documents on the struggle against apartheid and a Mandela Page which offers further background and a selection of his writings. Nonviolence was at the foundation of Mandela's political philosophy, but in the course of his career he came to accept the necessity of armed resistance. You might explore the interaction between these tendencies in Mandela's thinking, and consider what his eventual triumph, through a nonviolent transformation of government, suggests about the power of ideas.
2 class periods