Was violent or nonviolent protest more effective in the context of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement? It seems like a simple question, but on further examination it is a challenge to discern. The nonviolent work of Martin Luther King unarguably made significant strides in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but later legislative change may have been caused by the mass rioting after his death.

So which was more effective at achieving the movement's goals, such as laws protecting civil rights and the repeal of segregation ordinances? Similarly, either form of protest might be seen as ineffective if it provokes significant backlash, such that communities lost more than they gained.

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    How do you measure "effectiveness"? How do you identify the cause of legislation?
    – MCW
    Aug 5, 2015 at 18:44
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    They might not even be separable; it could very well be that nonviolent protest was more effective, but was only effective in the context that violent protest was happening too.
    – user13151
    Aug 6, 2015 at 0:42
  • 4
    This question has two surprisingly good answers. I have my doubts about the question, but if it can generate answers that are this intelligent, and this well researched, surely we should preserve the question!
    – MCW
    Aug 7, 2015 at 16:42
  • Last time I checked, "the movement's goals" were very different, depending on whether you accepted the necessity of armed action, or whether you hoped being beaten would soften the heart of a capitalist state. Aug 8, 2015 at 0:19
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    @SamuelRussell: The 20th century is rife with examples of "being beaten softening the heart of a [democratic] capitalist state" [my emphasis]. Just don't go expecting this to happen in a non-democratic capitalist state such as Nazi Germany. Jan 4, 2018 at 14:03

3 Answers 3


This is probably a very debatable question, but I think I can make the argument, with good historical backing, that it was the non-violent protests that were most effective in what progress was made in the Civil Rights movement.

Firstly I make this argument in deference to the leaders on the ground. A reading of Freedom Summer, by Bruce Watson* shows that the leadership of SNCC had extended, passionate discussions about whether to use "self-defence" or entirely passive resistance tactics. Stokely Carmichael, future leader of the Black Panthers, unsurprisingly was the lead voice for self-defense. This leadership was strongly southern blacks (unlike Carmichael), who knew exactly what kind of a buzzsaw they were walking into. That they settled on the tactic they did has to at least show that this was what they saw as the most effective tactic at that time. All of these people were in a far better position to judge that than any modern person who has not lived through what they did.

Secondly, lets look what happened with a pure self-defense approach. We can't look at that in isolation in 1964, but we can in 1921. On May 31st of that year, in response to an imminent lynching action, a similar discussion went on the black community of (north) Tulsa. In this case, the case of those arguing for active resistance and self-defense won the day. Guns were gathered, and volunteers set off for the jailhouse to offer their help to the Sheriff. There they dispersed a mob of 1,000 whites besieging the sheriff. So far so good.

The angry mob of whites put out the word that armed black folk were taking over town, the armory was raided, and soon the black community found itself in a pitched battle over the railroad tracks separating the two communities. The north Tulsa community fought bravely, but they just didn't have the numbers. At about 5 AM the tracks were overrun, and the white mob stormed into North Tulsa, and burned it to the ground. By the time the National Guard restored order the next day, hundreds were dead, over a thousand injured, six thousand "interned", and here's what the richest African-American district in the nation looked like the next day:

enter image description here

This wasn't the only such incident of African-American communities attempting self-defense, but it is probably the largest scale one. The people making decisions in the Civil Rights movement knew about these incidents, and others like them. They knew that if you don't have larger numbers, and/or political control, this is what the result of non-passive resistance looks like for you.

* - It is simply not possible for me to recommend this book highly enough.

  • Wow! What a picture. I imagine that the "armoury raid" wasn't very confrontational. Jan 4, 2018 at 13:59
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    @PieterGeerkens - There are more. City leaders had the good sense to be ashamed of this, but a large amount of poor whites were perversely proud of it. There were postcards made of the fires with legends like "Little Africa Burning". I saw one hanging over our booth in a diner in Wynona, OK in the early 70's and asked my dad about it. He quickly changed the subject.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 4, 2018 at 14:39

During the 1960s, non-violent protest was more effective than violent protest at bringing about desegregation in southern cities - especially where black protest groups had some economic leverage over the local community.

We know this thanks to a recent quantitative study, which found that cities with sit-in protests were much more likely to desegregate than otherwise similar cities (all else equal). In fact, protests were so effective that even neighboring cities were more likely to desegregate.

By contrast, the study finds that cities that experienced racial violence were neither more nor less likely to desegregate (all else equal).

Source: Michael Biggs and Kenneth Andrews, "Protest Campaigns and Movement Success: Desegregating the U.S. South in the Early 1960s."

Here's the abstract for the paper:

Can protest bring about social change? Although scholarship on the consequences of social movements has grown dramatically, our understanding of protest influence is limited; several recent studies have failed to detect any positive effect. We investigate sit-in protest by black college students in the U.S. South in 1960, which targeted segregated lunch counters. An original dataset of 334 cities enables us to assess the effect of protest while considering the factors that generate protest itself—including local movement infrastructure, supportive political environments, and favorable economic conditions. We find that sit-in protest greatly increased the probability of desegregation, as did protest in nearby cities. Over time, desegregation in one city raised the probability of desegregation nearby. In addition, desegregation tended to occur where opposition was weak, political conditions were favorable, and the movement’s constituency had economic leverage.

It's a phenomenal paper: incredible data, great methods.

  • 3
    Shame I can't favorite an answer. I'll have to settle for an upvote.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 6, 2015 at 10:14
  • @T.E.D. well you can bounty it ;)
    – o0'.
    Aug 8, 2015 at 12:21
  • The paper you link seems to be locked behind a membership/paywall.
    – justCal
    May 18, 2017 at 18:47
  • @justCal: Available today. Jan 4, 2018 at 13:58
  • @PieterGeerkens I still can't get past the abstract. When I click the Download PDF it asks for membership info or buy short term access.
    – justCal
    Jan 4, 2018 at 14:07

Obviously violent methods were more effective. If you read the civil rights bills they have odd provisions about outlawing transfer of explosives between state lines. Furthermore many civil rights laws were direct result of race riots.


  • 3
    The link you've provided doesn't seem to support your argument. Perhaps you should read the accepted answer above. May 18, 2017 at 17:32
  • 'Obviously' requires links and quotes to support your view on this forum. Can you show links to support your claims concerning explosives, or show a correlation between the time and location of race riots compared with the timing of civil rights laws?
    – justCal
    May 18, 2017 at 19:10

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