Martin Luther King's approach to the Civil Rights Movement was one of nonviolence. According to the King Center, “Dr. King is widely regarded as America’s pre-eminent advocate of nonviolence and one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in world history.” He believed this was crucial to getting the demands of civil rights protestors heard on the national, and even international, stage.
Dr. King followed in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi in India who also took the peaceful approach in protesting against British rule. Dr. King’s approach was in sharp contrast to that of the more militant Black Panthers, who wanted to retaliate against the violence directed at the civil rights protestors themselves. Dr. King felt that the power of words, combined with nonviolent resistance such as protests, civil disobedience, and strikes and boycotts would be more effective than violence. For example, as spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he was instrumental in peacefully forcing the government to integrate the Montgomery, bus lines after more than a year of boycotts, during which many citizens were forced to walk miles back and forth to work each day to effect change. The US Supreme Court ultimately ruled that racial segregation in transportation was unconstitutional.
In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "The violence was being perpetrated by the oppressors, not the oppressed and that was an incredibly powerful message and an incredibly important tool during the movement."
Moreover, though the March on Washington followed horrible violence against civil rights protestors in Mississippi just weeks before, with Dr. King at the lead, the March on Washington was peaceful. It was at that march that Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. In his speech, he referred to "the state of Mississippi" as "a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression." Yet, the march was peaceful, and there were no recorded arrests against the protestors.
Dr. King’s approach was also in sharp contrast to the approach that opponents to civil rights took. In fact, just weeks after the March on Washington, there was a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was set off during Sunday school classes, and four young girls were killed and twenty-three others injured.