Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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What is "militant nonviolence" in the context of the Civil Rights Movement? Martin Luther King created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose philosophy is "militant nonviolence."  What does that mean?

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Militant nonviolence means making the passive act of being nonviolent into an assertive action. While not a goal of the civil rights movement, this was a method championed by Martin Luther King, who was inspired by India's independence movement of the 1940s, which used it to great success. King was...

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Militant nonviolence means making the passive act of being nonviolent into an assertive action. While not a goal of the civil rights movement, this was a method championed by Martin Luther King, who was inspired by India's independence movement of the 1940s, which used it to great success. King was inspired to take this philosophy to his country's fight for civil rights and racial justice. He felt that it would be more successful in helping achieve the goals of the movement than violent protests or submission. In his first book, King wrote that "nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice."

King and other civil rights activists aimed to affect change through active yet nonviolent acts. These included the Montgomery bus boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins. In these and other cases, the nonviolent actions of activists forced private companies, and eventually governments, to change their policies around racial segregation.

Militant nonviolence can be contrasted to pacifism. The former calls on people to take an active role in making social changes. The latter only asks people to change their ways through suggestion and example. For King and his supporters, it was necessary to coerce and compel change. This required action, but as King rightly observed, a true and lasting change could only best be achieved through nonviolent means.

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Martin Luther King borrowed his idea of militant nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi's successful campaign to free India from British rule. Like Gandhi, King instructed his followers in the principles of non-violent protest. First and foremost, this meant not responding violently to provocation. Both leaders knew that they and their followers would be insulted, called names, hit, spit on, kicked, and in other ways threatened, but that it was imperative they did not strike bacK. Violence would discredit their movement. If they used violence, they would be labeled thugs, terrorists, and subhumans, and they would not gain popular support for their causes.

They called their nonviolence militant for several reasons. First and foremost, nonviolence was not merely used as a protest to call out injustice. Its goal was concrete political change with specific objectives in mind. King wanted blacks to be integrated into American society and wanted the law to back up integration, and he wanted blacks to have the same right to vote as whites. He fought (hence the word militant) for these goals. Like a military unit, he and his followers were wiling to be hurt or killed for these goals, only, unlike the military they would not use violence themselves.

A second reason for calling themselves militants was to contest the idea that nonviolence was weak, passive, or ineffective. Both Gandhi and King wanted to demonstrate that nonviolence was a form of strength more powerful than violence.

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There are, of course, two parts to this philosophy.

The easier part to understand is "nonviolence."  This was King's philosophy of using only nonviolent means to resist what he saw as unjust laws.  King was determined that the members of the Civil Rights Movement should act more morally than those who opposed them.  He felt that the movement had to be nonviolent so that its members could clearly be the "good guys."

At the same time, however, the movement needed to be "militant."  This means that it would be aggressive and very active.  It would not simply be passive and let things happen.  Instead, it would aggressively go out and try to change the world.  

This philosophy, then, is one that is nonviolent but also very active and aggressive.  It seeks to go out and push for real change but to do so in a nonviolent way that is morally good.

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