Lesson 1 of 4
One 50-minute class period

The Philosophy of Nonviolence

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

The purpose of this lesson is to help students

  • Understand the goals of the nonviolence movement, especially the concept of the Beloved Community
  • Understand the rationale of using nonviolence as a strategy to achieve the Beloved Community
  • Consider how the philosophy of nonviolence can inform responses to injustice and violence today


This first lesson, in a series of three that focus on nonviolence, helps students understand the goals and rationale that provided a foundation for the philosophy of nonviolence as advocated by activists in the civil rights movement, including James Lawson, Martin Luther King Jr., Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, Ella Baker the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and many others.



Warm up:

To help students connect to the focus of the lesson-the philosophy of nonviolence as a response to injustice-provide students with an opportunity to reflect on their own knowledge or experiences regarding responses to injustice. Here is one way you might do this:

First, ask students to identify an example of injustice-something that is unfair, wrong, or violent. This could be something that they have experienced or it might be something they heard about on the news or studied in history. After students identify an example of injustice, ask them to write down how people have responded to this injustice or could respond to it. What was done or is being done to confront the unjust situation? Finally, ask students to consider what the ultimate goal of these responses may have been-what might people have been trying to achieve through these actions? Encourage students to think broadly and creatively about injustices, responses and goals. Examples of injustices can range from the personal, such as being teased at school, to the international. Responses to injustice can range from violent acts, such as war or physical fighting, to acts of nonviolence such as sit-ins, marches, or dialogue. Goals can range from trying to change behavior to changing laws.

Provide students with the opportunity to share their examples of injustice, responses to this injustice, and the goals of this response. Record the responses on the board. What themes do students notice? How might they categorize the different responses to injustice? What were the different goals? If students do not notice the themes of violent and nonviolent responses on their own, you can help them recognize this distinction. You might ask students if they noted any responses that do not fall neatly into either of these categories. This activity will help students recognize that there are many possible approaches to responding to injustice. It might help them begin to see the connection between responses to injustice and the ultimate outcome this response might achieve. As a transition to the main activity, you might ask students to take a few minutes to reflect on the following questions:

What if individuals and groups only responded to injustice through nonviolent means? What might that look like? What goals might that achieve?

Main activity:
The main activity asks students to paraphrase quotations that illustrate the goals and rationale that support a philosophy of nonviolence. Here is one way you might structure this activity:

  • In small groups, ask students to paraphrase the excerpt below from Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. This quotation gains its power through King's use of powerful images. You might ask one student in the class to read the quotation aloud before beginning this exercise, or you might even have the class read the excerpt together. For a longer excerpt of this document, as well as background information about King's motivation for writing it, refer to page 56-57 of the Eyes on the Prize study guide. After students summarize the quotation in their own words, they can identify the injustice or injustices King and his fellow activists were seeking to remedy. Then groups can share responses. Consider both the specific incidents Dr. King described as well as the abstract concepts such as "disrespect based on color of one's skin" and "racism" as injustices they wanted to challenge. To help students organize ideas shared during this class, you might ask them to take notes on a graphic organizer (You can also use our Sample Graphic Organizer from Eyes on the Prize). You may use this organizer with students as they view individual episodes in the Eyes on the Prize series as way to help students understand the relationship between the goals and specific responses of activists. To help students understand the injustices described by Martin Luther King Jr. and the power of descriptive language, you might ask students to select an "image" from the quotation and represent it visually or dramatically. Students can then interpret each other's representations.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed...I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children...when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail," 1963

  • Now students are ready to think about how civil rights activists applied their understanding of nonviolent direct action to the injustices that King described. While all activists did not adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence, the nonviolent approach is considered a hallmark of the civil rights movement, especially as it played out in the South. The following quotations provide a rationale for why many civil rights activists advocated nonviolence-not only because they wanted to change laws, but more importantly because they wanted to change the hearts and minds of American citizens. As in the previous step, small groups of students can summarize these quotations in their own words. Then you can ask them to discuss the questions:

Why did civil rights activists believe nonviolence was the best way to challenge injustice? What was the ultimate goal of followers of nonviolence? Groups can share their answers with the class.

We, the men, women, and children of the civil rights movement, truly believed that if we adhered to the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence, we could help transform America. We wanted to realize what I like to call, the Beloved Community, an all-inclusive, truly interracial democracy based on simple justice, which respects the dignity and worth of every human being....Consider those two words: Beloved and Community. "Beloved" means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And "Community" means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle.
John Lewis, Member of the House of Representatives and former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Eyes on the Prize Study Guide, page 6)

Why use nonviolence? The most practical reason is that we're trying to create a more just society. You cannot do it if you exaggerate animosities. Martin King used to say, "If you use the law ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,' then you end up with everybody blind and toothless," which is right. So from a practical point of view, you don't want to blow up Nashville downtown, you simply want to open it up so that everybody has a chance to participate in it as people, fully, without any kind of reservations caused by creed, color, class, sex, anything else.
Reverend James Lawson, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Voices of Freedom, page 280)


Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair.
Reverend James Lawson, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Statement of Purpose

You may well ask, "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth?...Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail", 1963


Now that students are familiar with the rationale and goals of nonviolence, they are ready to discuss these ideas and apply them to today. Use the following prompt to begin the discussion: How might a nonviolent approach be used to confront injustice and violence in the world today? Under which circumstances might a nonviolent approach be successful? Are there situations where you think a nonviolent approach may be less likely to make an impact?

You might want to structure the discussion as town hall circle.

  • First, students need a few minutes to prepare for the discussion. After making sure students understand the prompt, students can spend some time writing about any questions and ideas that they might want to raise in a discussion. Some teachers even require that all students enter a discussion with at least one question and one comment.
  • While they are writing, you can move chairs around so that there is a circle of chairs in the center of the room-enough chairs for half of the students. (Some students might have to do their writing while standing if you need to move their chairs.)
  • Divide the class into two groups. Ask half of the class to participate in the discussion while the other half of the class participates as active listeners. Each listener should record at least one question or comment that they would like to make when they go to the center of the "town hall circle." For example, a student may record an idea that they agree with or an idea that they disagree with. [Note: This activity works best if students have had some instruction regarding how to have a respectful discussion. You might want to remind them that they should comment on ideas - not on people. Before beginning the "town hall circle," you could even ask students to give you an example of an appropriate comment (i.e. "I disagree with the idea that....") and an inappropriate comment (i.e. "That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.)
  • After about ten minutes, have students switch roles.


Understanding the philosophy of nonviolence as a response to injustice and violence is as relevant to our world today as it was to civil rights activists fifty years ago. Below are some ways to evaluate students' understanding of the philosophy of nonviolence while also helping them see the relevance of nonviolence to their own communities, nation, and larger society. These activities can be completed in class or assigned for homework.

  • Returning to the example of injustice that students wrote about during the warm-up exercise, you might ask students to write a short essay explaining what might happen if they applied the philosophy of nonviolence they learned about in class today to this situation. How might this influence the responses they select? How might choosing a nonviolent approach influence the ultimate goals the response might achieve? Finally, students can reflect on the reasons they might choose to respond nonviolently as well as some reasons why they might be hesitant to advocate for a nonviolent approach.
  • Students might imagine an unjust situation that might provoke a violent response. Students can then write a short persuasive speech for the purpose of convincing someone to respond to this situation nonviolently. After writing this speech (and possibly presenting it in class the next day), you might ask students to reflect on the degree to which they agree with the arguments they made.
  • In "Letter from Birmingham Jail" Dr. King wrote, "...we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies [activists] to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise up from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood." Students can summarize this quotation in their own words and then answer the following questions: Why do you think so many people advocated for a philosophy of nonviolence? What makes it appealing? To what extent do you agree with the philosophy reflected in this quotation?


The purpose of this class is to help students understand one approach to challenging injustice-the philosophy of nonviolence-and to understand how this strategy was deeply connected to the ultimate goal of its followers: achieving the Beloved Community. The philosophy of nonviolence has deep historical roots and has been advocated by individuals and groups around the world. This lesson focuses on the philosophy of nonviolence espoused by activists during the civil rights movement in the United States in the later half of the twentieth century. As an extension activity after this lesson, you might have students research nonviolent movements in other parts of the world such as Chile, India, Northern Ireland, and South Africa.

Recent Changes to Eyes on the Prize Series Availability:

We are no longer able to stream Eyes On The Prize episodes and our library is not able to lend DVDs at this time. The Eyes on the Prize series can be found through Kanopy (a streaming service provided by public libraries) and Amazon Prime. We apologize for the incovenience.


Lesson 1 of 4
Race in US History

The Philosophy of Nonviolence

Students build an understanding of civil rights activists’ rationale for supporting a philosophy of nonviolence.

Lesson 2 of 4
Race in US History

Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change

Students explore the six steps of nonviolent social change that activists during the civil rights movement practiced.

Lesson 3 of 4
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Tactics of Nonviolence

Students identify the tactics of nonviolent action used during the civil rights movement and consider how these tactics can be used today.

Lesson 4 of 4
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Students build a definition of participation and reflect on several episodes throughout history when young people chose to take a stand.

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