Texas Tech University

What We Can Learn From Dr. Martin Luther King Junior About Being An Active Bystander


By: Sofia Miller, Peer Educator

January 28th, 2020

photo of martin luther king jr being an active bystander


January 18th has just passed, and it is important to honor the work and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. After the chaotic and tragic events of 2020, Martin Luther King Jr. day felt extra heavy but also extra inspiring. It is imperative to be aware of what is going on in our country – both the good and the bad. From police brutality, equal pay, and the #MeToo movement, America's social issues cans feel overwhelming, sad, and sometimes hopeless. I'm here to remind you that there is hope and that you can make a difference. You can have a positive impact on people and the world we all share. You are more than capable of being a social justice warrior. But you may have asked yourself at one point or another, "How could I possibly make a difference when there is so much darkness?" Well, lucky for you, I have an answer! You can be a positive force of light in the darkness by being an active bystander.

Psychology Today defines the Bystander Effect as, "when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation...The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress." (1)

There are two factors that explain how the bystander effect happens: the diffusion of responsibility and social influence. In a situation with many people – in a subway station, on a busy street, or on a crowded college campus, a bystander is less likely to intervene. The second factor is based on societal expectations and biases. Before intervening, "individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act." If no one is acting, an individual may not step in either for fear of being wrong, acting in a way that's not socially accepted, or for many other reasons. This is a cycle that spins and spins until someone finally steps in or it is too late.

So, how can we be an active bystander to stop the cycle of inaction? Here are five steps to help you begin your journey from The 5 D's according to Active Bystander Orientation by Calvert et. al. (2).:

  • Direct: The goal with direct intervention is to succinctly stop any inappropriate behavior without further escalating the situation or putting yourself and others in a position where safety is compromised. Examples of direct intervention are:
    • "Did I hear correctly that you just said X?" and "That comment was inappropriate / disrespectful / homophobic / racist / etc."

  • Distract: The goal here is to divert attention away from the harmful interaction and help the person affected get away or re-gain their composure.
    • If you know the affected person, step in with some reason that you need to talk to them like, "Hey, did you get my email?"
    • If you don't know the person, pretend like you do and greet them, change the subject, or ask something like, "Can you help me find room 435?"
    • If you're in an environment with food or drink, accidentally-on-purpose spill your drink, drop your glass or make some other commotion.

  • Delegate: Depending on the situation, you can ask a friend for help or ask other bystanders to distract or otherwise intervene while you find an authority figure.
    • You are not alone; some colleagues can help if intervention is needed.
    • If you are in an extreme situation where people's lives are in danger, calling 911 is an option. However, if you are unsure whether or not to call 911, you might want to use the distract approach to check with the affected person to make sure they want the police to be called. Depending on who is involved, calling the police may make the person affected feel even less safe.

  • Delay: If you are unable to intervene, you can still take action to show support for the affected person and try to help mitigate future harmful behaviors.
    • Examples of how to delay are: Offering specific types of help, offering to accompany them to their next destination, and offering to sit with them for a while.

  • Document: You might be able to help by simply documenting a harmful interaction using recording features on your phone. However, if someone is being harassed and no one else is helping them, you might want to use one of the other 4 D's first.
    • Once you have a recording, you should ALWAYS ask the person who was affected what they want to do with the recording before posting it or sending it to someone else and respecting their decision.
    • While recording, it is important to keep a safe distance from the offender, capture landmarks and other scene-identifying features, and clearly state the date and time. Try to capture at least 10 seconds of the interaction.

It may be frightening or intimidating to intervene in an emergency situation. It is okay and natural to feel fear, but do not let it consume you. The victim, in this case, is feeling more fear than you. Keep yourself and others safe before, during, and after you have stepped into your role as an active bystander. You could save a life.

To wrap up this post and the importance of action, let's hear from Dr. King himself. From his Letter from Birmingham Jail (3):

"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."


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1. "Bystander Effect." Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2021, www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bystander-effect.
2. Calvert, Scout, et. al. "Active Bystander Orientation." DLF, 4 Dec. 2019, www.diglib.org/active-bystander-orientation/.
3. King, Martin Luther. "Letter from Birmingham Jail (Ext)." Quote of the Day: Martin Luther King, Jr., 21 May 1999, www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/060.html.