What was Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to the Civil Rights Movement?

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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.

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Dr. Martin Luther King's approach to the Civil Rights Movement was one of non-violence, civil disobedience, and direct political action through the existing government and power structure of the United States. He used the words and principles of the American Constitution as the foundation for his argument for equal rights. Generally speaking, it can be said that King had a slower and less radical approach toward Civil Rights than Malcolm X, who urged his followers not to wait for civil rights, but to demand them immediately and use "any means necessary" to achieve civil rights.

King sought to achieve civil rights for people of color in America by meeting with top government officials that were sympathetic to the cause. This included President Kennedy and, later, President Johnson.

Through non-violent civil disobedience, King sought to make those who were upholding the segregation laws look as bad as possible while making those who were protesting look as victimized as possible. This tactic worked, and officials in many Southern states reacted viciously to the protests, using attack dogs and fire hoses to break up crowds of non-violent protesters. One particular incident in 1963 garnered a lot of attention: the Birmingham Children's Crusade. A group of children marched peacefully in Birmingham, Alabama and were brutally assaulted, having the aforementioned attack dogs and fire hoses used on them. The images and videos of this shocked people around the world, and King's use of civil disobedience to make the opposition look bad while inducing sympathy for his cause ultimately suceeded.

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Martin Luther King's approach, or strategy, for fighting for civil rights is best described as nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. King, influenced especially by Indian protest leader Mohandas Gandhi, believed in building pressure for social change by leading marches through hostile segregated areas, violating segregation laws (civil disobedience) and otherwise directly challenging Jim Crow. He recognized that this strategy would place activists in considerable danger, both of arrest and physical abuse, but this was, in some ways, the point. The Civil Rights Movement emerged in the age of television, and King hoped to use nonviolence in the face of violence to win public support for his cause. This, in turn, would put pressure on the federal government to enforce existing laws and court decisions and pass new ones, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

King and other leaders also used direct action to create a state of crisis for local governments, who lacked the resources to deal with the scale of many of the protests he organized. "Flood the jails!" was a rallying cry for many civil rights protesters who put pressure on governments lacking jail space to deal with them to give in to their demands. So while King advocated peaceful nonviolent protest as a means of creating a moral contrast between his cause and that of the segregationists, this approach should not be mistaken for passivity. Rather, King advocated attacking segregation at its heart.

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