Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The civil rights leader helped drag this nation out of the shadow of its most overt racism and left behind a legacy that proved the power of protest and civil disobedience.
From the Boston Tea Party to Gandhi to Rosa Parks to Black Lives Matter, civil disobedience has been a powerful means of enacting change. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” King once said.
That sentiment has resonated over generations. While there are way too many examples for a complete list, here are five times that civil disobedience has made a difference since King’s death 50 years ago.
- Raised Fists at the Olympics, 1968: A few months after King was assassinated, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meter race. They bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in protest of the treatment of African-Americans. They were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team for the act. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat,” Carlos was quoted as saying at the time.
- “Tank Man,” Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989: The photo of a nameless protestor standing in front of a line of government tanks is a vivid reminder of the potential power of a single person. The photo distilled the bravery and horror of the Tiananmen Square uprising into a single image.
- Arab Spring, 2010 – 2011: In late 2010, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated to protest the Tunisian government’s authoritarian control. His desperate act sparked a protest that eventually led to Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country. It then grew into a movement that spread across the Arab world, most successfully in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and faced charges of killing unarmed protesters.
- Occupy Wall Street, 2011: In September 2011, a small group took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to protest the growing wealth gap. The group wanted to highlight the fact that 1% of households in the United States own 40% of the wealth. What started as a localized act sparked a national and global movement that highlighted the consolidation of corporate and political power.
- Colin Kaepernick, 2016: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel when the national anthem was played before NFL games. It was a peaceful protest of how this country “oppresses black people and people of color.” His action spread to other players and other sports, kicked off a national conversation, and drew the ire of the president. It also led to the end of his professional football career. Last year, Kaepernick won the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.