Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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How did Martin Luther King Jr. overcome his challenges?

Martin Luther King Jr. overcame the challenge to the civil rights movement of white stalling strategies by insisting that the time for change was at hand. He overcame the temptation of frustrated Black people to react violently, teaching his followers effective principles of nonviolent resistance.

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As Martin Luther King Jr. observed the sufferings imposed on Black people by racism, he realized he faced several challenges that hemmed Black people in as they struggled to try to change their situation.

The first was the recurrent white racist strategy of making promises, reneging on them, and telling Black people to a wait a little longer. For ninety years, as King understood when he began his activism in the 1950s, Black people had been held in place by continually being told the lie that the pot of gold was just around the next corner.

King fought this, most famously in his "I Have a Dream Speech," by insisting with verbal forcefulness that the time for change was now. White people had to do more than pay lip service to reforming injustice. King also fought back against promises made and betrayed by ordering protests and boycotts. As he insisted in the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," this was not "going too far," as some white people insisted. Instead, he argued, it was a morally justified response to betrayal and oppression.

More importantly, King realized very early on that if the civil rights movement had any hope of succeeding, it needed white support and that that support would only come if the movement was nonviolent. For that reason (and his Christian convictions), King carefully studied and taught his followers the principles of nonviolence he learned from Gandhi's example in India. He knew that not responding with violence to insult and violent provocations would only happen with training. For that reason, before the sit-in at the Greensboro lunch counter, for example, he had his protesters role-play the scene, with others taunting the protesters with racial insults, pouring cokes on their heads, and shoving or pulling, so that they could learn not to react.

These strategies, as we know, were successful in winning Black people legal rights that had before been out of reach.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 13, 2021
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