King’s political genius was in putting the institutional weight of a major national civil rights organization behind an ambitious, escalating deployment of civil resistance tactics. In the case of Birmingham, this meant taking many of the approaches that had been tried before — the economic pressure leveled against merchants during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the dramatic sit-ins of Nashville, the fill-the-jails arrest strategy of Albany — and combining them in a multi-staged assault that sociologist and civil rights historian Aldon Morris would dub “a planned exercise in mass disruption.” In creating an engineered conflict that could capture the national spotlight, King took huge risks. It would have been far easier for an organization of the size and background of the SCLC to turn toward more mainstream lobbying and legal action — much as the NAACP had done. Instead, by following SNCC’s student activists in embracing nonviolent confrontation, SCLC organizers and their local allies created a dramatic clash with segregationists that put the normally hidden injustices of racism on stark public display.
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