Fighting for Social Justice

Fighting for Social Justice: A Comparative Historical Analysis of the Protest Strategies Employed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the NAACP during the American Civil Rights Movement

Janet H. Mason, EdD
Educational Consultant
University of South Carolina, Emeritus

Cameron Van Patterson, MA
Doctoral Candidate, African & African American Studies
Harvard University

Intended Audience: Secondary and Postsecondary Students

Scope and Sequence:

The structure, order, and length of this lesson plan may vary, so instructors should make adjustments as needed in order to adapt the lesson to their respective learning needs and environments. Ideally, this lesson would be taught over the course of a week at the secondary level, so as to allow students adequate time to engage and comprehend relevant learning materials. Each section of this lesson plan can be taught in a one- to two-hour class session with a minimum of three class sessions or periods.

Instructional Procedure:

  1. Discuss the introduction and lead students through a discussion of the readings. Have students respond to the corresponding discussion questions.
  2. Over the course of two or three class sessions, lead students through an in-depth discussion of each section topic. Feel free to incorporate interactive learning activities and multimedia presentations.
  3. On the final class session dedicated to this lesson, review the focus points from each section. Divide students into three groups and have each group prepare a presentation on section I, II, or III of the lesson plan. Organize a class debate and have students from each group argue the merits of the various strategies discussed in the readings.


After participating in this learning exercise students should be able to do the following:

  1. Articulate the primary protest strategies employed by Dr. King, Malcolm X, the NAACP, and related organizations like SNCC and CORE in the effort to advance racial justice and eradicate racism in America.
  2. Debate and Identify the strengths and weaknesses of these strategies through comparative analysis.
  3. Evaluate the merits of these strategies while placing them in a broader historical context.
  4. Determine and Explain whether or not these strategies are applicable today.


In America, the civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. is commonly imagined as a secular saint whose moral righteousness alone routed the forces of segregation. While public histories often romanticize the civil rights movement by presenting a one-dimensional image of King, this simplistic view ignores King's formidable strategic talents. This curriculum asserts that both Dr. King's monumental successes and tragic setbacks have value to the student of strategy.

Strategy is primarily understood in the military context, but its tenets are not unique to warfare. Dr. King was not a military strategist, but his deft formulation and execution of strategy was key to the relative successes of his political struggle against the entrenched forces of racial segregation and inequality. Moreover, historians have argued that Dr. King's success in advancing the goals and objectives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the civil rights movement were made possible, in part, because of the dynamic social tension created by the alternative strategic approaches to racial justice employed and espoused by people like Malcolm X and civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) , Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) , and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) .

Though mostly nonviolent, the civil rights movement (CRM) shares many similarities with contemporary movements that might be characterized as insurgencies. As the military historian Mark Grimsley argued in a March 2009 lecture at the Army Heritage Education Center, civil rights campaigners in the South faced an entrenched political and social order that employed legal obstructionism and violence to protect itself. Clearly, any campaign to overthrow such an order would be a massive undertaking fraught with all kinds of dangers.

Dr. King's actions were informed by the central strategic premise that racial equality was guaranteed by the basic framework of the United States Constitution. Therefore, he believed that appeals to conscience, or "moral suasion," could galvanize the country behind the civil rights cause. Dr. King also correctly identified what Carl von Clausewitz calls the opponent's center of gravity (a point of connectivity, unity, or purpose from which the opponent comes together) as the dominant political and social structure of the South, built on a holistic system of both informal and formal processes of discrimination. This center of purpose animated and motivated individuals like the notorious Birmingham, Alabama, police official Eugene "Bull" Connor, providing the moral, political, and organizational basis for the continued suppression of African Americans. Understanding the nature of his opponent, Dr. King was able to dramatize his strategic approach to nonviolent direct action in the media.

This lesson plan explores difficult questions posed by the late historian Howard Zinn about the "limitations of non-violence" that compel us to reevaluate the effectiveness of Dr. King's position. In light of this complex and intricate social history, how might we come to some general conclusions about the best way to advance causes for social justice? Through this comparative study we will explore several important strategies that played a pivotal role in advancing the fight for social justice in America.


  • "Letter from Birmingham Jail," by Emily M. Lewis, Keith D. Miller. In The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • "Malcolm X," by Larvester Gaither. In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • "Houston, Charles Hamilton," by Thomas E. Carney. In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did historical events leading up to the 1950s and 1960s influence the development of the CRM? Identify and discuss two historical events that might have had a significant impact on the formation of the movement.
  2. What made the rhetorical structure of Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" so effective? What can be learned from his rhetorical example, and how might King's religious background have influenced his writing? (Consider the Toulmin method, the sermonic Jeremiad, call-and-response, the social gospel, and the prophetic tradition.)
  3. Discuss Malcolm X's transition from "Malcolm Little" to "Malcolm X" to "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz." How do these names reflect the evolution of Malcolm X's political and philosophical thought?
  4. How did Charles Hamilton Houston influence the strategic approach adopted by the NAACP to combating racial inequality?

I. Nonviolent Direct Action

Focus Points:

Many regard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the most successful and influential leader of the twentieth-century. As a charismatic speaker, political leader, and philosopher, Dr. King was unmatched. But King was also a skilled strategist and a dedicated servant-leader. His vision of America as a "beloved community" of racially diverse and integrated people was radical and transformative. And his use of non-violent direct action was as inspired by a Christian love ethic as it was by pragmatic concerns regarding the grim possibility of racial warfare. Using Mahatma Gandhi and Christian theology as a guide, Dr. King embraced non-violence as the best means to affect racial justice in America, but when King was assassinated in 1968 violence swept the nation. This unit of the lesson plan provides instructors with an opportunity to help students think critically about the pros and cons of non-violent direct action, and the way in which Dr. King's criticism of the Vietnam War, poverty, and the military industrial complex affected the CRM.

Focused Reading Questions:

  1. What were the formal and informal political and economic mechanisms that kept black Americans in the position of being second-class citizens prior to the CRM?
  2. What were Dr. King's primary objectives in the use of "nonviolent direct action," and how did these objectives serve the larger goals of the CRM?


  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from Birmingham Jail," (1963). [Document Type: Letter.]
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. "A Time to Break Silence" (4 April 1967). [Document Type: Speech.]
  • "Poor People's Campaign," by Anja Sch�ler. In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Based on your reading of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," what was the philosophical basis of Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to civil disobedience?
  2. What was Dr. King's view of "extremism"?
  3. Before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King began to think more critically about the relationship between race and class in America. His "Poor People's Campaign" sharply criticized economic inequality and, against the wishes of friends, King decided to speak out against the Vietnam War. How might Dr. King's critique of American action abroad and economic disparities at home have affected his life, legacy, and the way he is remembered today?
  4. Write a short response to one of the following questions and discuss your thoughts with a peer.
    1. How did Dr. King maintain calmness in the midst of both external adversity and acrimonious internal political struggles within the movement?
    2. How can Dr. King's strategy formulation be analyzed using the military construct of ends, ways, and means?
    3. In addition to organizing the black community, how did Dr. King attract a larger, more diverse coalition of political supporters?

II. "By Any Means Necessary"

Focus Points:

Described by the actor Ossie Davis as the "shining, black prince" of the CRM, Malcolm X came to embody black masculinity, courage, intellect, and strength for an entire generation of African Americans. His leadership and political thought was particularly inspiring for urban blacks in the North, and his position on important civil rights questions like violence, integration, and political representation varied from that espoused by Dr. King, James Baldwin, the NAACP, and other civil rights leaders and organizations. While not always in disagreement with his peers and colleagues, Malcolm X was an independent thinker who was not afraid to change his mind. In fact, his experiences abroad caused him to change his thinking on a number of key issues. This unit of the lesson plan provides instructors with an opportunity to help their students think critically about the evolution, influence, and legacy of Malcolm X.

Focused Reading Exercise:

After watching Spike Lee's film Malcolm X (1992), identify three critical moments depicted in the film that you think had a profound impact on the formation of Malcolm X's political philosophy. In a small group, discuss these moments and their significance.


  • Malcolm X, "Ballot or the Bullet" (3 April 1964). [Document Type: Speech.]
  • Malcolm X, "Malcolm X's Letters from Abroad" (1964). [Document Type: Letters.]
  • "Pan-Africanism," by Kwame Anthony Appiah. In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, 2nd ed., edited by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Analyze the following quote from Malcolm X and formulate a question for small group discussion.

    "I'm nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me. But when you drop that violence on me, then you've made me go insane, and I'm not responsible for what I do. And that's the way every Negro should get. Any time you know you're within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don't die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality. What's good for the goose is good for the gander."— "The Ballot or the Bullet," speech given at Cory Methodist Church, Cleveland, Ohio (3 April 1964).
  2. How did Malcolm X justify his position on the issue of violence in "The Ballet or the Bullet"? Compare his reasoning to Dr. King's. Which do you find more compelling and why?
  3. How did Malcolm X's shift from a focus on "civil rights" to "human rights" affect Dr. King and the direction of the civil rights movement? How did Pan-Africanism and Islam influence Malcolm X's thinking on race and justice throughout the world?
  4. Is there common ground in Martin Luther King Jr.'s and Malcolm X's arguments that could be used to develop a position regarding the best approach to social, political, and economic protest?
  5. What was Malcolm X's position on racial integration? Do you agree or disagree with his point of view? Why, or why not?
  6. From a strategic and political point of view, why might it have been important for Malcolm X to link the CRM in America with anticolonial struggles in South Africa and other African countries?

III. Constitutional Law, Litigation, and the NAACP

Focus Points:

Since the NAACP decided to adopt a legal strategy in the fight against racial inequality, the organization's Legal Defense and Education Fund—led by a cadre of highly skilled lawyers—sought to establish a series of legal precedents that would influence the jurisprudence of supreme court judges and lead them to declare the unconstitutionality of the "separate but equal"/segregationist social doctrine. This unit of the lesson plan provides teachers with an opportunity to help students think critically about the impact of specific legal challenges to segregation. Students should also be encouraged to think about the efficacy of the NAACP, and how their assault on the legality of Jim Crow laws shaped the CRM.

Focused Reading Exercise:

Summarize the historical context and legal precedence established in Plessey v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Review the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court's decision and the outcome of the case with students. Lead an open-ended class discussion with students about how this case set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Divide the class and ask students to argue the constitutionality of "separate but equal." Be sure to have students address why this legal and social doctrine ultimately failed to meet the criteria of specific constitutional amendments. This discussion should allow you to transition into the readings.


  • " Brown v. Board of Education," by Kate Tuttle. In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, 2nd ed., edited by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas (1951). [Document Type: Legal/Court Document.]
  • "Civil Rights Movement," by Patricia Sullivan. In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, 2nd ed., edited by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • "Clark, Kenneth Bancroft," by Steven J. Niven. In African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • "Desegregation in the United States." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, 2nd ed., edited by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What was the national debate over the constitutionality of racial consideration in matters of the state(s) where Dr. King was striving to maintain the momentum of the CRM? How has this debate developed in more recent legal decisions concerning affirmative action and the consideration of race in public education?
  2. How did the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attack the constitutionality of "separate but equal"? What did they argue, and what court cases leading up to the Brown decision were important in making the argument against racial segregation?
  3. What were some of the limitations of the NAACP's legal strategy? Did ending de jure segregation change the de facto realities of racial inequality and discrimination in America? How integrated are American public schools today, and what might the current condition of public schools say about the effectiveness of the NAACP's legal strategy?
  4. How did Dr. Kenneth B. Clark argue that separate was inherently unequal? Do you agree with his argument? Why, or why not?

Learning Assessment/Evaluation:

Have each student develop (brainstorm, outline, etc.) and write a comparative term paper with a coherent, argumentative thesis that critically examines the social justice strategies advanced by Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the NAACP. Students should address the strengths and weaknesses of each strategic approach, while arguing for the strategy they think most effective. Students should support their arguments with historical evidence and citations from the assigned readings.

Additional Resources:

  • Anderson, Kevin R. Agitations: Ideologies and Strategies in African American Politics. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2010.
  • Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Nonviolent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 2000.
  • D'Angelo, Raymond N. The American Civil Rights Movement: Readings and Interpretations. Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2001.
  • Hampton, Henry, et al. Eyes on the Prize. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 2006.
  • Jones, Clarence B., and Joel Engel. What Would Martin Say? New York: Harper, 2008.
  • Singh, Nikhil Pal. Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • X, Malcolm, and George Breitman. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
  • X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: One World/Ballantine Books, 1992.

Additional Key Historical Figures:

Vernon Napoleon Johns, Ella Baker, James Farmer, Bayard Taylor Rustin, Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Jo Ann Robinson, Shirley Chisholm, Stokely Carmichael.