5 Lessons On Organizing From Martin Luther King, Jr.

“You can be an agent of change and social justice at any age…”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was 26 years old when Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Moved to act by the injustice of her arrest, King, fellow activists, community leaders, and regular folks came together to form the Montgomery Improvement Association. Four days after Park’s arrest they organized the Montgomery bus boycott. The attention their boycott garnered put a national spotlight on the issue of segregation and racism in America.

You don’t have to go into your first efforts at organizing thinking you’re going to start a revolution.

These were people as young as 16 and as old as 60 who organized and planned a straightforward protest — boycott the bus — and through their activism helped set into motion one of the most important fights for human rights in American history.

These were people as young as 16 and as old as 60 who organized and planned a straightforward protest — boycott the bus — and through their activism helped set into motion one of the important fights for human rights in American history.

You can be an agent of change and social justice at any age. As we think about King and his legacy on MLK day, one of the most important lessons we can take from his example is that it is never “too soon” and you are never too young to come together with others and fight for what you believe in.

In the spirit of MLK, here are a few ways you can start organizing.

  1. Start a conversation

Big issues aren’t always something you can face alone. Even if you feel like you’re the only one who recognizes a problem, speak up. You never know who might feel the exact same way as you do about a cause, but never felt comfortable enough to bring it up to someone.

2. Start an activist group or club

King and others who formed the Montgomery Improvement Association didn’t just suddenly meet and plan a major protest after Parks’ arrest. These were people in their community who had already been meeting with each other, conversing and advocating for the end of segregation for years and years prior.

Start a club, build your network of friends and people who believe in the cause you’re fighting for. Meet once a week, or even once a month. Build your community.

3. Make plans

You don’t have to go into your first efforts at organizing thinking you’re going to start a revolution, but having actionable plans for how you and your peers will make a difference is important. Whether you’re planning a protest or a food drive, think about how you’re going to execute it, and then get out there and do it.

4. Educate yourself

Before you act on an issue, it is important to always try as hard as you can to understand it. King adapted his method of non-violent protest from Ghandi’s leadership in fighting for India’s independence from Great Britain. Pay attention to and learn from other’s perspectives, even those you may disagree with.

5. Don’t get discouraged

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was illegal in January of 1957, the people of Montgomery had been walking and boycotting for over a year, King’s home had been bombed, and police had enacted a “get tough” policy on boycotters — targeting the carpools blacks in Montgomery relied on for transportation in lieu of the bus.

But in spite of all the backlash they faced, they won their battle. They accomplished what they set out to do.

Persevering through adversity in the name of what you believe in, even if you don’t succeed, brings with it the reward of knowing that you’re doing what’s right and that you’re doing all you can to make it happen.