Lesson 2 of 4
One 50-minute class period

Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

These lessons are designed to help students

  • Understand the six steps of nonviolent social change practiced by activists during the civil rights movement
  • Identify how activists applied these steps during the protest movement in Nashville, TN in 1960-1961
  • Consider how these steps might apply to confronting injustice in their world today


In this second lesson in a series of three that focus on nonviolence, students become familiar with the overall strategy of nonviolence by identifying how these steps played out during one important struggle of the civil rights movement: the student protests in Nashville to end segregation.



Note: This lesson begins where lesson one ended. If students have not experienced lesson one, you might want to begin this lesson with the warm-up from lesson one.


To prepare students to understand the steps of nonviolent social change, you might begin with a review of the philosophy of nonviolence that students explored in lesson one. The King Center website includes many resources that might help students review the philosophy of nonviolence, including the Six Principles of Nonviolence which is derived from "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" in Dr. King's book Stride Toward Freedom, Harper & Row, 1958. One way you might help students review the principles of nonviolence is through a big paper exercise.

  • Write or paste one of the six principles in the center of a large piece of paper.
  • Divide students into small groups such that each group has one of the "big papers."
  • In silence, ask students to respond to the quotation by writing a question or comment on the big paper.
  • After about ten minutes, allow students to go around to two or three of the papers. As students read other big papers they can add their own questions and comments. If you have more time, students might cycle through all six papers. This step is also done in silence.
  • Then students return to their original page. Now they can have a verbal conversation about their ideas and the comments posted on their big paper.
  • If students have never done a "big paper" activity before, you might want to select one of the principles to use as an example where you model what students will be doing in this activity.
  • Additionally, to help students better access the material and to develop students' vocabulary, you can review unfamiliar words, such as adversary, reconciliation, animosity and prevail, prior to the activity, Or, you can provide the definition of these words on the relevant "big paper."

Main activity:

The main activity of this lesson introduces students to the Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change which is found on the King Center website and in the Glossary of Nonviolence. One way to help students understand these six steps is to see how they played out in practice. The first half of the video Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared of Your Jails (1960–1961) (04:30-23:00) provides a detailed historical example of the steps civil rights activists, many of them students, took in order to change desegregation laws in Nashville through nonviolent means. This segment shows how changing a law is not as simple as organizing a few sit-ins.

  • To help students connect the events in the video clip to the "Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change" you might have them use a graphic organizer. You can create a graphic organizer for students or have them make one themselves. 
  • Before viewing the first half of Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared of Your Jails (1960–1961) (04:30-23:00) review the Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change with students. You might do this by asking them to define key terms and brainstorm examples of what each step might look like in action. After reviewing these six steps, you might ask students to consider the relationship between these six steps and the ultimate goal of the nonviolence movement-the realization of the Beloved Community.
  • As students watch the Eyes on the Prize segment, they can record notes on their graphic organizers. If you are concerned that your students will not be able to focus on the six steps at the same time, you might assign students to be the recorder for one or two of the steps. After viewing the clip, students assigned to the same step can compare notes and then report their findings to the rest of the class. Ultimately, the whole class should have examples of the "Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change" taken from the film clip. Here are some ideas that students might include in their graphic organizers:
    • The role of workshops teaching students about the philosophy and practice of nonviolence
    • The change in attitude of Mayor Ben West.
    • Activists used many direct action tactics including sit-ins, boycotts, marches and picketing
    • Activists did not only attempt to educate Southerners, but that they wanted to educate Northerners as well.
    • Business and political leaders changed their actions as a result of the protesters' actions
  • You might also stop the video at moments where you think one of the steps was depicted and ask students to name the step, prompt them to record notes, and pause for a few minutes for reflections and questions. As students watch the film, you might also want to pause for more general student reactions. (What do they find interesting? What questions do they have? What surprises them? What reminds them of events in their own life?) Additional questions you might want to discuss with students as they view the film include: [Note: These questions might also be used to assess students' understanding of the material in the form of a quiz or as part of a test.]
    • Why do you think black college students were at the forefront of this movement, as opposed to other groups such as black teachers, black business leaders, or black farmers?
    • What do people need to know and be able to do in order to function as an effective nonviolent protester? How might you prepare people with the information and discipline needed for this task?
    • In an interview, Reverend C.T. Vivian remarks, "When Jim Lawson came to the city, he came to organize students, all right? And most important to that, for both students and we who were ministers, was that we had workshops, and the workshops in nonviolence made the difference. We began to understand the philosophy behind it, the tactics, the techniques, how to in fact begin to take the blows and still respond with some sense of dignity." What might have happened if the organizers jumped right to the sit-ins and marches without these workshops?
    • In this video, we see police officers beating protesters. Why do you think the police acted so violently? How did the protesters respond to these beatings? What do you think was the effect of this response?
    • John Lewis said that going to jail was a "badge of honor." What do you think he meant by this? How does going to jail figure into a strategy of nonviolence? What do John Lewis and other protesters accomplish by going to jail?
    • The narrator says that the protest movement was forcing the residents of Nashville to "decide whether segregation was right or wrong." How did the protest movement do this?
    • Whom do you think the protesters were trying to influence? Who was their audience-the white population, the African American population, Northerners, Southerners?
    • What is the role of the media at this time? Where do you see them in this video segment? How did the protesters use the media to forward their own agenda?
    • What role did the church play? Why do you think the church might have played a role in this nonviolent protest movement to end segregation? To what extent do you think the church might have been involved if the protesters did not endorse a strategy of nonviolence?
    • At the end of the segment, Mayor Ben West remarks that he had to answer Diane Nash's question "as a man" and not as a politician. What do you think he meant by this distinction? What might he have said "as a politician?"

Follow through:

You might begin to debrief the material in the film by providing students with the opportunity to write a general reaction to what they have just seen. These comments can serve as the starting point for a larger class discussion. The Nashville nonviolent protests in 1960-61 are often considered to be one of the best historical examples of the philosophy of nonviolence in practice. A debrief of the film might include a critique of what they viewed. Below are some questions students might reflect on in writing or in a discussion in order to process what they just watched:

  • What is the difference between a custom, a law, and an attitude? Can you recall any specific examples of customs, laws, and/or attitudes that changed as a result of nonviolent protests? Which of these do you think the protesters were trying to change? In the fight against injustice, do you think it is more important to change laws or attitudes, or, are both goals equally important?
  • What worked? What did not work? In what ways did the events in Nashville exemplify the six steps as proposed by the King Center? Could any of the steps have been strengthened? How? What is the importance of each step? What might have happened if one of them were missing?
  • Many people consider this to be a success story in the struggle for civil rights. To what extent do you think the Nashville protesters were successful? Why? Identify two or three moments of success. What makes them moments of success in your opinion? To what extent do you think the philosophy and steps of nonviolence made the success of this moment possible?


The Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change are not only relevant to history or the civil rights movement, but they can also be applied today. To evaluate students' understanding of how the philosophy of nonviolence manifests itself in the real world, you might ask students to apply what they have learned to an example of injustice they care about. This can be done in class or for homework; it can be an individual or group exercise. Below are some prompts designed to help students apply "The Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change" to examples of injustice in the world today:

a. Identify an example of injustice. Using the Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change as a guide, chart out an action plan of how you might challenge this injustice using nonviolent means. What would you do first? Who might you talk to? Where might you get information? What action might you take?

b. Write a short story that is going to be part of a collection called, "The Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change." Your story does not have to result in a happy ending, but it should make sense given what you have learned about the six steps of nonviolence and the protest movement in Nashville. [Note: If you choose this prompt, you might have students read each other's stories and analyze if they think the success or failure of the protest movement is believable based on their understanding of the philosophy and steps of nonviolence, as well as their knowledge of the protest movement in Nashville.]

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
Race in US History

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
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Taking a Stand: Models of Civic Participation

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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