Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance

Through engaging activities, video, and small-group discussion, students consider the Montgomery Bus Boycott and how they might stand up against injustice in their own lives.


Students will:
  • honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by learning about nonviolent resistance 
  • learn about the "power in numbers" 
  • look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an example of effective nonviolent resistance
  • consider ways that nonviolent action can be useful in cases of bullying
Social and Emotional Skills:
  • learning how to stand up to violence, oppression and injustice in nonviolent ways
  • learning that beyond "fight or flight," there is a third response: being assertive
  • learning about the power of cooperation
Materials needed:


(10 minutes)

Ask students to help you make a "rainstorm" by following your actions around the circle. Start by rubbing your hands together. The student to your right will pick up on the action and start rubbing her hands together, as will the student to her right, and the student to her right all the way around the circle until all students are rubbing their hands together.
Now change your action: start snapping your fingers. The student to your right will also start snapping her fingers, as will the student to her right until this action has traveled around the circle and all students are snapping their fingers.
Next, start clapping your hands, which the students will also follow around the circle, followed by slapping your thighs and eventually stomping your feet.
As students follow your directions ask them to listen carefully for the rainstorm they're creating, starting with a pitter patter and building to a thunderous downpour.
Debrief the activity by asking the class some or all of the following questions:
  • What was the activity like for you? 
  • What did you need to do to create the rainstorm? (Answers might include listening, cooperation, coordination, support etc.)
  • What did you notice about the sound of the rainstorm?
  • Is it possible to create a rainstorm by yourself?
Elicit from students the realization that a pitter patter is possible by one's self but that a thunderous downpour requires numbers.
Ask your students if they have heard the expression "power in numbers." What do they think it means?

Agenda and Introduction

(5 minutes)
Explain that in today's lesson you'll honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by looking at the power of nonviolent resistance. Most people, when faced with violence, either confront it with their own violence or they turn away and try avoid the violence altogether. This old survival mechanism is known as the "fight or flight response."
There is third way though, an assertive response, that is, being active without being aggressive. Nonviolent action is a powerful kind of assertive response. As your students can probably imagine, though, it is not easy to face violence in an active yet nonviolent way.
Ask if your students think it is possible to fight violence, oppression and injustice effectively using nonviolent actions. Do they think it's easy? Why or why not? 
Ask your students if they know the names Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. What did these men have in common with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Elicit and explain that all three men mobilized large groups of people to use nonviolent resistance effectively against violent and oppressive systems. Mohandas Gandhi mobilized people against colonialism in India, Nelson Mandela against apartheid in South Africa, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against racism and racist policies in the U.S.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

(15 minutes)
Explain that the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 is a successful example of nonviolent action against the practice of racially segregated seating on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Ask your students what they know about the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • Have they ever heard of a woman named Rosa Parks? What do they know about her?
Play the Eyes on the Prize video clip about the Montgomery bus boycott at the PBS website: (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/resources/vid/02_video_bus_q...)
Explain that segregated seating on buses had angered the African American community of Montgomery for many years. The front of the bus was for white passengers; the back was for black passengers.
But the discrimination didn't stop there. Black passengers had to pay their fares at the front of the bus like everyone else, then had to leave the bus and reboard again at the back. They faced regular harassment from white drivers, who would sometimes pull away before black passengers had a chance to reboard the bus after paying their fair. On the bus, races were separated by a movable barrier. As the bus filled up, the barrier was moved back to create more room for white passengers. And as if all of this wasn't humiliating enough, no black passengers were allowed to sit in the same row as white passengers.
In the clip, Martin Luther King referred to Rosa Parks' decision to refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger in December of 1955. Parks was arrested and tried for her defiance. In response, 42,000 black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, (40% of the population) began a yearlong boycott of city buses. This boycott propelled the Civil Rights Movement into the national consciousness and one of the boycott's leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., into the public eye. As a result of this movement, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that segregated seating on public buses was unconstitutional.
  • Ask your students what they think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an example nonviolent action.
  • Do your students think Rosa Parks would have been able to change the constitution by herself? 
  • What does this tell us about power in numbers?
And yet sometimes it's important for one person to take a stance, to set things in motion, to lead by example. Let's now look at what we can learn from the Montgomery Bus Boycott that can be applied in our classroom. 

Microlab: The power in numbers

(15 minutes)
Ask students to break into groups of three. Ask them to talk in their groups about a time they were teased or picked on — and/or a time they saw someone else getting teased or picked on. What happened? What role did the student play? Was she or he the person being teased or picked on, or the one doing the teasing? Or was the student a witness to the incident? How did the incident make the student feel? Make sure that each student in the microlab gets a chance to speak by timing the activity and instructing students to let the next person speak after a minute or two.
When all students have had a chance to speak, ask some volunteers to share what they discussed in their microlabs. Elicit and explain that when someone is getting teased or picked on, we might play one of three roles:
Role A: We are the one being picked on.
Role B: We are the one who is picking on someone else.
Role C: We are other students who are aware of the behavior and/or actually see it happening.
In the examples students have given in the discussion, ask: Who was playing Role C? Who was aware of or actually saw someone being picked on? What did these bystanders do? Did they watch and do nothing (submissive)? Did they egg on the person who was doing the teasing (aggressive)? Or did they stand up for the person being picked on (assertive)? Why did they behave the way they did?
In situations like these, very often the people in Role C are afraid to stand up for fear of becoming the target themselves. In this way the person playing Role B is able to terrorize and oppress not just A but everyone in Role C as well.
What those in Role C often forget is that there is "power in numbers." And with that there is often a "safety in numbers" as well. Imagine if everyone in Role C organized and decided together to take a stance to stop B from oppressing A.
  • What are your students' thoughts about that?
  • Would doing this honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King? How?
Explain that some of the biggest changes we have seen in the world happened when people stood up against injustice using nonviolent action. We can change our own world by standing up against the injustice we see around us. We can use the power in numbers to take a stance and say "No more" or "Not on my watch."


(5 minutes)
Ask a few volunteers to share something they learned today, or something they felt during the class.
How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email: info@morningsidecenter.org.