Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr: Five Examples of Nonviolent, Civil Disobedience Worldwide

This Monday, January 20, we celebrate the accomplishments and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arguably one of the most influential activists in human history. The iconic Dr. King is known for his strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, which he used to advance the civil rights of black Americans, who had been treated as second-class citizens for more than a century.

The strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience used by Dr. King and the American Civil Rights Movement was not the first time the approach had been used. In fact, throughout history the tactic has been used — and often used successfully — to achieve political or civil-rights goals. Below are five of the most famous — and infamous — examples of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Examples of Civil Disobedience Worldwide

Gandhi’s Salt March, 1930

Dr. King was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his use of nonviolent civil disobedience in India. The famed Salt March — where Gandhi led tens of thousands of Indians on a 250-mile trek — was a major step in the fight for Indian independence from England. The march was aimed at the British “salt tax” and monopoly throughout colonial India. The brutal crackdown by British police on the nonviolent protesters achieved international media attention, strengthening support for not only the tactic of nonviolence but also the Indian independence movement.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s 7th of March Speech, 1971

A little known yet very powerful call to nonviolent civil disobedience was made by the Bangladeshi (then known as East Pakistan) leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Following the national elections in East Pakistan, West Pakistan (now known simply as Pakistan) began armed mobilization in preparation for a potential war to reject Bangladeshi independence. In the face of this impending conflict, Rahman made the powerful statement: “Our struggle is for our freedom. Our struggle is for our independence” (video link) and called for the civil disobedience of every Bangladeshi citizen, specifically through non-cooperation with the political and military establishment of West Pakistan. Though West Pakistan would go on to commit a violent crackdown on Bangladesh, this speech gave hope to humanity that nonviolence is a tool of statecraft, even in the face of great threat.

Cape Town Peace March, 1989

During apartheid rule in South Africa, civil disobedience was a commonly used tactic by black leaders in the fight against the repressive South African government. The Cape Town Peace March, organized by religious and political leaders — both white and black — was considered a great success, as police were not present to apprehend the protesters and the march proceeded peacefully. The success spurred further marches around the country, and months later the African National Congress was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.

Tiananmen Square Protests, 1989

The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led, popular demonstrations that targeted issues of government reform and social disenfranchisement. The movement had been gaining momentum for months, and ultimately led to the brutal government crackdown on thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations were popularly supported and — in the lead-up to the government crackdown — appeared to be gaining concessions from the Chinese government. That changed when hardliners in the Chinese party labeled the movement as “counter revolutionary” and sent in military forces to remove the protesters from the Square. The violent crackdown cut short the potential gains of the movement, but the historic moment lived on through these iconic images.

Tibetan Protests, 2009 to Present

Since 2009, 125 Tibetans have practiced self-immolation in a call for freedom of Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama. Self-immolation, or the purposeful lighting of oneself on fire, is a powerful symbolic gesture of protest, wherein the death of the protester is meant to bring attention to his or her plight. The struggle of these Tibetans began decades ago during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, when the Chinese began to reassert autonomy and exiled the Tibetan spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans have since called for international support to counter what they see as an ethnic cleansing and cultural repression by the Chinese government. While an independent Tibet still seems out of reach, these self-immolations may bring international attention — and international support — to the cause.

While Dr. King’s leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement was successful ultimately in ensuring the civil rights of millions, the world remains a violent place. Nonviolence and civil disobedience — as opposed to violence and conflict — can still be a viable path toward gaining political and civil rights worldwide. We can only hope that those fighting injustice continue to use this strategy.

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