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Non-violence Was Key to Civil Rights Movement

  • Chris Simkins

The success of the of the American Civil Rights Movement and the fight for racial equality in the United States is a testament to the determination of millions of African Americans who fought against discrimination in the 1960s. On January 20, 2014, Americans use the national holiday to recognize the efforts of the civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King.

A major factor in the success of the movement was the strategy of protesting for equal rights without using violence. Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King championed this approach as an alternative to armed uprising. King's non-violent movement was inspired by the teachings of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Led by King, millions of blacks took to the streets for peaceful protests as well as acts of civil disobedience and economic boycotts in what some leaders describe as America's second civil war.

The non-violent movement was tested in places like Birmingham, Alabama.

"During that period of time you had people who were being murdered, homes being bombed, churches being bombed and there was a sense that evil would prevail," said William Bell, Birmingham’s current mayor.

A 1965 march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama is remembered as "Bloody Sunday." Congressman John Lewis led the march.

"They came toward us, beating us with night sticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas,” said Lewis. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I had a concussion on the bridge and I thought I was going to die."

Andrew Young, one of King's closest aides, called for calm against a backdrop of outrage.

"If we had started guerilla warfare in America’s cities, if we had given into terrorism in America, we could not have won but America could not have survived," said Young.

In Birmingham images of police using attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse protesting school children were broadcast around the world.

"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," said Richard Cohen an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In August 1963 thousands of African Americans and whites gathered for the March on Washington. It was peaceful with no arrests.

But just weeks after the March on Washington, tragedy struck in Birmingham when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church during Sunday school classes. Four young girls were killed and 23 others injured. It was an awful blow for Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Shirley Gavin Floyd, a friend of one of the victims, was traumatized by the hate killings.

"I was scared to look at a white person and I was scared to go anywhere I thought a white person was because I had really believed that could easily happen to me," said Gavin.

Many blacks wanted to retaliate. Among them Congressman Bobby Rush, who in the 1960's was a member of the militant group known as the Black Panthers.

"I thought that Dr. King was too milquetoast, too passive, and I didn't understand the power of non-violence,” said Rush. “So I didn't adhere to his philosophy and turned the other cheek."

Ben Jealous, president of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, said the non-violent campaign won American hearts and minds.

"The movement was moving towards a crescendo that we would see in 1964 and 1965 when landmark civil rights legislation was passed," said Jealous.