How to Start a Nonviolent Direct Action Group to Make MLK Proud

by George Lakey

Martin Luther King poster courtesy

Some people feel inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. to do service projects. But the U.S. civil rights movement that he led was not about days of service; it was about days of confrontational action. Think about the hundreds of action groups that sprang up in the North as well as the South, many winning campaigns against racial discrimination. They mobilized and radicalized people; that movement gave me my first experience of civil disobedience.

Some of those early groups, of course, flourished, and some fell apart quickly. Since then we’ve learned a lot about how to start action groups in a way that increases their chance to thrive, wage a campaign, learn from it and grow, often through trial and error.

The steps for beginning a group are not really as simple as a food recipe, but I’ll take the risk of writing this in a recipe-kind-of-way. Remember that every situation is always unique. You’ll need to think with friends through each step, adapting to your circumstances.

Ask who can hold the vision. Maybe it’s you who can picture what the group will be like when it is up and running. That makes you the “holder of the vision.” But maybe that’s not your gift. Find someone who can do that for the group. The vision-holder doesn’t need to be the iconic “leader.” In fact, it’s probably best to drop the idea of the leader, and instead look for the gifts that, brought together, provide the team-leadership your group will need to move forward.

The visionary you want doesn’t get lost in detail, doesn’t spend a lot of time reasoning things out, doesn’t focus their efforts on helping people feel good with each other, and doesn’t get impatient when there’s not action right away. The vision-holder is someone who can imagine what the group needs to look like and feel like and sound like when it’s up and running, and beyond. If you’re lucky, you’ll find more than one person with the gift of holding this kind of vision (and hopefully they’ll agree on what it is).

Ask who can analyze the situation and place it in context. Once you have a broad vision, you’ll need to assemble the relevant factors, list the considerations, get the statistics together and track the history of action efforts on the issue. Find the person who can research the oppressive structure you’re targeting, who can identify the various forces that are contending with each other and assess their strengths. Maybe you’ll be lucky, again, and find more than one analyst to divide up the work.

Ask who can “make the rubber hit the road.” A group may have a vision and an analysis and never become an action group because it gets lost in generating options and doing cost-benefit analyses! To pull off a successful action, you need someone who can mobilize others to decide on a plan — not endlessly debate it — and then implement it. You’ll need to find one or more persons who bring that gift. You’ll never be an action group without the sort of person who led her basketball team to victory, or who convinced his high school friends to jump in a car and head to a nearby city for a demonstration or a rock concert.

Ask who can tune in to the feelings of others. There are plenty of groups that have had the analyst and visionary and in-charge activist but have gotten demoralized and split because they had no one to provide glue, to notice the underlying conflicts that needed to surface, to pay attention to the individuals on the margin who were being overlooked in the excitement. It’s as true in the Internet age as it has always been: Every successful group has at least one person who keeps track of the membership as a whole, a shepherd who looks after the flock and resolves conflict before it blows up in everyone’s face. If you don’t have this gift yourself, find a couple of people who do and explain to them their importance. For some reason shepherds often undervalue their own importance; let them know they have a key part to play.

Groups come and go; the more successful ones include (usually by luck) the four roles of visionary, analyst, driver/warrior, and shepherd. Keeping these roles in mind from the outset can save you the time and disappointment of relying on hit-or-miss approaches like assembling a random collection of your friends in a room and hoping you can get a successful group out of it.

Once you know that the people in the room include all four of the gifts that successful groups need, then take some time to consolidate. One metaphor in the field of organizing is the snowball: If you pack it tight, it will attract other snow when you roll it down the hill and you’ll end up with an amazing snowperson; if you don’t pack it tight, it will attract very little and go nowhere. Here are some of the challenges of successful group-building that you may face next.

As prospective members of your group are getting to know each other, beware of letting friendship be the tail that wags the dog. Some groups start by placing such a high priority on inclusiveness that they fail to accomplish anything important. They don’t achieve the clarity or focus to be edgy or consequential. So, as the people you gather together do their elaborate and subtle dance with each other, expect that some may leave, and they should. It’s better that your group should stand for something than that it should stand for anything.

Leadership and decision-making are on people’s minds whether they mention it or not, so you might as well raise it to the surface. Talk about what processes will support the vision for the group. Consider what will empower certain group members for certain tasks, and the kinds of members you want to attract. Try to avoid simplistic polarizations or the kind of political correctness that prevents later effectiveness. Although I’ve had great successes with consensus decision-making and shared leadership, I’ve also started successful organizations with defined leadership roles and the possibility of taking votes. It depends on whom I want in the room, what their backgrounds are and what expectations I encounter. Ironically, consensus decision-making can disempower and even exclude some people, depending on cultural factors. Chapter Five of the book I co-authored with Berit Lakey,  Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1995) describes eight models that movement groups have used for their structures. Easy answers don’t work for a diverse group; anticipate having to think each situation out carefully, consider options and constantly touch base with your mission.

In the group, clarify your mission. Do you want to be all things to all people? (You’ll fail!) Do you want to work in a way that shows the connections among a number of different issues, or do you want to focus first on a particular issue and make a difference there? Do you want to add an ingredient that’s missing in the array of organizations now working on the issue? Make your mission clear enough that you’ll know whether you’re gaining or losing ground. With a clear mission, also, a group can readily reject some supposedly bright ideas because they don’t happen to fit into the mission — thus saving itself a lot of time.

Map your first campaign. One-off protests are okay for bonding, but the way for your group to develop a learning curve and actually make a difference is to create a campaign — or to join, as an ally, a campaign underway. Put your analysts to work and identify some relatively easy options to choose among, because, for a new group, nothing succeeds like success. A goal may qualify as easy because public opinion is already on your side, or because strong organizations already in the field are working on it and have done a lot of the research and action experimentation needed, or because the injustice is so outrageous that even some of the other side’s allies are deserting their cause.

The choice of the first campaign is critical to the success of your group, so it often pays to call in a veteran organizer/trainer to facilitate a strategy retreat. She or he will help you think about the target, the strengths of your constituency and other considerations for maximizing your clout this first time out.

Take a risk. It’s amazing how many excuses seven politically-correct people can find for talking instead of acting boldly. Build a culture of resistance by yourself taking a risk, and explain to your friends that inspiring each other to act requires a lot of risk-taking on everyone’s part — while recognizing that different people can take different risks more or less easily. Watching a movie together like Danny Glover’s Freedom Song, about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee entering Mississippi Klan country in 1961, can help build your action group’s resolve. That was one of Dr. King’s greatest contributions to the young activists of his day: He showed through action how people inspire one other to organize and act in turn.

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Lakey is a regular contributor to our site. Please click on his byline to access his Author Archives page for biographical information, links, and an index of other of his articles posted here. This article has been shared with, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi