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Nonviolent Protest

Updated on July 7, 2018

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the most influential people in history was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who changed the course of American society through an advocacy of nonviolent protest. Interestingly, his protests regarding social change landed him in jail at least thirty times. One of his most famous writings, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was one of many pieces he would write while jailed. Dr. King began to closely study the theory of nonviolence while attending graduate school at Crozer Theological Seminary, particularly influenced by a sermon delivered by Dr. Mordecai Johnson at the Fellowship House of Philadelphia. Dr. Johnson had just come back from India before he spoke at the Fellowship House of Philadelphia, and he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s movement of nonviolence against British colonialism. Dr. King recorded his thoughts regarding Dr. Johnson’s sermon in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom, saying “his message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” Integrating Gandhi’s philosophy into his Christian beliefs, Dr. King used strategies of nonviolence to empower the people to act for social change. The most famous act of nonviolence that led to change in American society was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement he was chosen to lead local African American leaders. However, Dr. King had never planned to be a social leader; rather, he had merely planned to be a pastor of a church. Nonetheless, his role as a social leader led to his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually born Michael King, Jr. on January 15, 1929. His father, named Michael King, changed his name shortly after his son’s birth to Martin Luther King in honor of the protestant reformer. In doing so, he also changed his son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr.[1] At age 15, Dr. King graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and was admitted into Morehouse College. At age 19, he graduated from Morehouse College and began graduate school at Crozer Theological Seminary and was ordained to the Baptist ministry. Dr. King graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951 at the age of 22, and subsequently attended Boston University for his doctoral studies. In 1955 at age 26, he graduated from Boston University with a Doctorate of Philosophy in systematic theology. His dissertation was titled A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, which was a comparative study of religious methodology. Also in 1955, Dr. King was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. As such, he became the official spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.[2]

Refusing to get up when asked to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as the Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional. As president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. coordinated the boycott and became a civil rights leader. Demonstrating nonviolent protest to challenge racist segregation, the boycott brought international attention to Montgomery. Dr. King wrote about the bus boycott in his memoir Stride Toward Freedom, which revealed that the purpose of the bus boycott was to animate change for civil rights in a nonviolent manner. Interestingly, the foundation of the bus boycott occurred years before the arrest of Rosa Parks. The Women’s Political Council, which was a group of black women professionals, had taken attention to Jim Crow practices on public buses in Montgomery. The Women’s Political Council had outlined various changes to Montgomery’s public bus system, including that no one should stand while there were empty seats, that blacks should not pay at the front of the bus and enter through the back of the bus, and that buses should stop in every black residential corner as in every white residential corner. After the Women’s Political Council met with the Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle to no success, Women’s Political Council President Jo Ann Robinson wrote a letter to the mayor stating that “there has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations planning a city-wide boycott of buses.”[3]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Stride Toward Freedom that “Ms. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,” and “her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted.” Further, he wrote that she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”[4] So when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, the bus boycott was initiated. Others had already been arrested for violating Montgomery bus policies of the time, such as 15 year old Claudette Colvin and 18 year old Mary Louise Smith; however, it was Parks character and reputation that would truly initiate the civil rights movement that began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 5 of 1955 following her arrest, the Women’s Political Council and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicized the bus boycott in Montgomery and ninety percent of the black citizens of Montgomery stayed off the buses.[5] That evening at a Montgomery Improvement Association Meeting, Dr. King stated “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong.” He continued, “if we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United states is wrong. If we are wrong, God almighty is wrong.”[6]

In early 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and E.D. Nixon’s homes were bombed. Dr. King was able to calm the crowd down, stating “be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.”[7] In February 1956, over 80 boycott leaders, including Dr. King were indicted for violating a 1921 law that prohibited conspiracies interfering with lawful business. After being tried in State of Alabama v. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. King was convicted to pay a $500 fine and 365 days in jail. Nonetheless, the boycott continued. While the majority of the publicity regarding the bus boycott was from black ministers, women played a crucial role.[8] Jo Ann Robinson, Johnnie Carr, Irene West, Mary Fair Burks, and countless other women claimed to have joined the boycott for the benefit of their children and grandchildren.[9] After much debate in the federal district court, Browder v. Gayle ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. After being appealed to the Supreme Court, Browder v. Gayle was affirmed. On December 20, 1956, Dr. King called for the end of the bus boycott and the Montgomery Improvement Association agreed.[10] Regarding the boycott, Dr. King said “we came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation.” He continued, “we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery.”[11] Dr. King’s role in the boycott received world-wide attention, using mass nonviolent protest and Christian ethic to challenge segregation in the South.[12]


[1] The King Center, “FAQ’s" (launched January 16, 2012).

[2] Mitchell Brown, “Timeline of Events in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Life" (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013).

[3] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle: Montgomery Bus Boycott" (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2013).

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 44.

[5] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle: Montgomery Bus Boycott.”

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Birth of a New Age, Vol. III ed. Clayborne Carson et al (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 73.

[7] Ibid, 115.

[8] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle.”

[9] King, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 78.

[10] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

[11] King, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Birth of a New Age, 486.

[12] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

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