Civil Rights and Non-Violence

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I Have a Dream" speech
Photo: Library of Congress

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a sword that heals. [It] cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the heart of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s was the use of nonviolent direct-action protest, including the student sit-ins portrayed in FEBRUARY ONE. Inspired by the example of Jesus, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence, black church and community leaders in the United States began advocating the use of non-violence in their own struggle. Beyond spontaneous and planned student sit-ins, several organizations were formed to fight for civil rights using Gandhi’s model of nonviolent dissent and action. Three of the most influential groups—the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—were pivotal in bringing about social change in America.

A crowd of Freedom Riders gather outside a burning bus.
Freedom Riders gather outside burning
bus in Anniston, Alabama in 1961.
Photo: Library of Congress

Two Non-Violent Protests in 
the Civil Rights Movement
The Selma-to-Montgomery March
On March, 7, 1965, a group of protesters began to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of equal voting rights. They were stopped at the Pettus Bridge by a police blockade. Fifty marchers were hospitalized after police used tear gas, whips and clubs against them in what became known as "Bloody Sunday.” Two weeks later the protesters, protected by federal troops, tried again and completed the historic 54-mile march.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by a white policeman.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted
after her civil disobedience.
Photo: Library of Congress

The Montgomery Bus Boycott
On December 5, 1955, four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. The boycott continued for more than a year until the buses were desegregated on December 21, 1956.

The Congress of Racial Equality

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in Chicago in 1942 to promote better race relations and end racial discrimination in the United States. One of their first nonviolent actions was a protest against segregation at a Chicago coffee shop in 1943, one of the earliest known sit-ins of that era.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, CORE was instrumental in some of the era’s most powerful protests, including voter registration drives and challenges to interstate transportation practices. One of CORE's most successful projects was sending more than 1,000 “Freedom Riders” on buses throughout the South in 1961 to test segregation laws, which ultimately ended segregation on interstate bus routes. CORE was also one of the sponsors of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was organized in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to create a base of operation in the South and build a national platform upon which to speak about segregation and civil rights. Based on principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience, SCLC quickly became a major force in the movement.

Working primarily in the South, SCLC conducted leadership training programs and citizen education projects. The organization played a major part in the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Some of SCLC’s most influential work was the coordination of voter registration drives in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama in the early 1960s. Those campaigns eventually led to passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organized in 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Marion Barry, who would later become the mayor of the District of Columbia, served as its first chairman in 1961. Directly inspired by the Greensboro sit-ins and its nonviolent approach, members of SNCC conducted numerous other sit-ins throughout the South. They also participated in “Freedom Rides” to end segregation on interstate buses, and they sponsored voter registration and citizenship education drives during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

While SNCC had been devoted to nonviolent resistance, some members began to rebel. Under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael (who coined the phrase “black power”) in the mid-1960s, SNCC was influenced more by the idea of Black Nationalism and radical tactics. The group began to dissolve and it disbanded in 1970.


Home | The Film | The Greensboro Four | The Sit-In | Behind-the-Scenes | Learn More | For Educators | Talkback | Site Credits

Get The Video Talkback For Educators Learn More Behind-the-Scenes The Sit-In The Greensboro Four The Film