Nonviolent Protest and the Beloved Community

This lesson explores how, historically and today, love combined with nonviolent action has helped people fight injustice and work towards what Dr. King referred to as "the beloved community."  


Introduction or Opening Ceremony

Explain that today we’ll reflect on "LOVE."  Not romantic love or a reciprocal love between personal friends. Instead, we’ll talk about a love that Martin Luther King, Jr. described as:

"understanding, creative, [liberating] ... goodwill, even for one’s enemies"

Invite students to think about when it is easy to love and have kind, generous feelings for another, and when it’s hard.  Dr. King urged us to love everyone.  We don’t have to love what they do, though. We can separate the person from their actions.  Invite student thoughts on that.

Check Agenda and Objectives


Beloved Community Word Web

Explain that in today's lesson we’ll be looking at how love combined with nonviolent action can be a powerful way to fight injustice and work towards what Dr. King referred to as  "the beloved community." Ask who has ever heard of this term.

Write "BELOVED COMMUNITY" on the board and circle it. Invite students to free associate with the term.  Ask students to think about what a beloved community may look or feel like. Who might make up a beloved community and how might it be created?  What might it feel like to be part of a beloved community?  Record students’ responses around the circled word, and connect them to the circle with lines, creating a web. 

When students have finished with their word associations, ask them to reflect on the beloved community word web , using some or all of the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the words in the web?
    Do you think you’d be interested in living in a beloved community?
  • How would it compare with the communities you are a part of today?

Explain that the term "beloved community" was first coined in the early 20th century by the philosopher and theologian Josiah Royce, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Another member of the Fellowship, however, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., popularized the term and invested it with deeper meaning.  King talked about the beloved community in many of his speeches and sermons. For him, it was a global vision in which human decency wouldn’t allow such societal ills as racism and other forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice, a community where poverty, hunger, homelessness wouldn’t exist and war was not an option. 

Fundamental to the idea of beloved community is social and economic inclusiveness, a community where resources are distributed more evenly and all are embraced, none are discriminated against. The beloved community wasn’t devoid of conflict, however.  Dr. King saw conflict as a natural part of life, but he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled if there was a commitment to nonviolence.   

King saw the beloved community as a realistic and achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Of course most people, when faced with violence, injustice, or oppression either confront it with violence of their own, or turn away, trying to avoid or ignore what’s happening. These responses can be viewed in the context of an age-old survival mechanism, known as the "fight or flight response."  There is a third way, though: an assertive response. That is, taking action, standing up for what’s right, without using violence yourself.

Nonviolent action is a powerful kind of assertive response that has been used across the world at different points in time. As your students can probably imagine, it is not easy to face violence, injustice or oppression in a nonviolent way.  Explain that in today’s lesson we’ll look at what we can learn from history to help address today’s violence, injustice and oppression.


Nonviolent Action

Ask your students for their thoughts about opposing oppression and injustice using nonviolent actions. Do they think it's easy? Why or why not? Do they think it’s possible?  Why or why not?

Next, ask your students if they’re familiar with the names Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. What did these people have in common with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Elicit and explain that all these people helped lead movements in which hundreds of thousands of people used nonviolent action effectively to help dismantle violent, unjust and oppressive systems. Mohandas Gandhi was part of a movement that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people against British colonial rule in India. Nelson Mandela and his many allies used nonviolent strategies to organize against the brutal white apartheid regime in South Africa.  Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta helped lead a movement of unions, political activists, religious groups, Latino organizations, and students that united to fight for the rights of migrant farm workers in the fields of California and beyond.

Note that while all these individuals were effective leaders, they were part of large organizations and movements that included many leaders and heroes whose names we may not know.


Small Group Discussion

In the next activity students will be asked to read this handout (which also appears at the bottom of this lesson), called The Power of Nonviolent Action a.k.a. People Power.

In small groups of four or five invite students to discuss the handout according to some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the methods described in this handout?
  • What does the handout say about power? Who holds power? Why? How?
  • Have you seen any of these tactics used around the country in recent months?  Where?  How?


What’s happening today?

Bring students back to the large group to share out what was discussed in their small groups. 

Make the connection between the situation in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s to what’s happening around the country today.  Touch on the Black Lives Matter movement, the protection camp at Standing Rock and/or other strikes, marches, boycotts and protests that we’ve seen people engaged in around the country.  Recent examples (in February 2017) include:

  • Strikes (a day without immigrants, Yemini bodega owners closing their stores and taxi drivers go on strike for an hour to protest the immigration and refugee ban, etc.)
  • Marches (women’s marches around the country and world the day after the inauguration, BLM marches and rallies on and off college campuses)
  • Boycotts (the #deleteUber campaign, the #grabyourwallet Trump boycott, etc.)
  • Protests (at airports across the country; outside the offices of Congress members and Senators; outside the White House and Supreme Court in Washington, DC, at town halls across the country, etc.)
  • Walk outs
  • Speak outs
  • Global prayer actions
  • Ceremonial fires to burn down the camp at Standing Rock before evacuation



Nonviolent action was initiated, spread and maintained by many during the Civil Rights Movement and since then. Throughout it all, Dr. King was, and continues to be, an inspiration to many.  So to end today’s lesson, we’ll return to Dr. King and the idea of love that started today’s lesson.

"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."

Invite students to share their thoughts on this quote. Ask them to reflect on the different ways people have, throughout history, used their power to push back against oppression, injustice, and racism - and continue to do so today.


The Power of Nonviolent Action, a.k.a. People Power

(See pdf version here.) 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. promoted nonviolent action to fight the oppressive and unjust systems that perpetuated racism in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired mostly by Gandhi, he argued that it was important to oppose and dismantle racism at a systemic level using nonviolent action.  He argued that this was a way that ordinary people could exert their power.

Of course, people had tried to address racial injustice before.  Many had previously gone to court to fight institutionalized segregation. But it proved difficult or impossible to use a racist legal system to fight racism. The courts did not provide the results people were looking for. Segregation persisted, which is why people turned to other means. King helped build organizations (including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Council), and joined with other organizations and activists. Together, they motivated ordinary people to organize themselves and their resources into collective power. Thousands of people gained knowledge and got trained in the methods of nonviolent action to exercise their power from the bottom up. 

Traditionally power is seen as flowing from the top down.  Those at the top are seen as having power over those at lower levels of institutions.  Take a school district. Students report to their teachers, who report to their principals, who in turn report to their superintendents, who report to the mayor. There are checks along the way, including from unions that represent school staff, parent organizations, watchdog organizations, and oversight from state and federal education officials. 

Most institutions in society are structured this way: the person or persons at the top are the ones who hold power. Corporations have CEOs at their top making decisions. Cities have mayors running things. The military has the Secretary of Defense who reports to the President, the Commander in Chief.  In theory, it might seem that those at lower levels of these institutions would have to do as they’re told or face the consequences—consequences like being suspended, expelled, fired, demoted, fined, having to pay a restitution, or possibly going to jail. 

But this isn’t the only way power works.  Power can also flow up, especially when people recognize and start to use their power strategically and collectively.  People can use legal action to challenge those in power. They can also form unions; by banding together, workers can more evenly match the power of their employers.  Through strategic, nonviolent action, they can apply pressure on those in power. But people can use nonviolent action even in the absence of an organization like a union. 

According to Gene Sharp, who has been called the father of nonviolent struggle:

"By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep food supplied to the markets, make steel, build rockets, train the police and the army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule." (from The Politics of Nonviolent Action )

The nonviolentactions promoted during the Civil Rights Movement employ this form of power—power from the bottom up, a.k.a. people power, to oppose and resist the racist and oppressive nature of American institutions.  By pushing back on the system or by withdrawing power (through disobeying orders, economic noncooperation and boycotts, strikes and protests), the system’s weaknesses can be exposed. People recognize they can shift the balance of power in society.