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March 1st Movement, the Key Players

It’s a story that has become part of my life folklore. I was five years old at a preschool/kindergarten that was located at a church. The teacher I had was a Korean woman. One day, my father called the school advising he would be late to pick me up. This

sweet teacher took me to her apartment to wait for him there since the school was closing. Yes, back then, things like that happened. I’m not sure why but now I wonder if it was March 1st that she began telling me the story of Yu Gwansun Unni (older sister). I can’t tell you what she told me exactly but the essence of this unni as a freedom fighter for Korea stuck with me. When I got home, I asked my mom to tell me more about her and I wonder if that was the beginning of my interest in Korean history.

Historical Context and Background

The March 1st Movement, ignited in 1919, was rooted in deep historical grievances against Japanese colonial rule established following the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. This period marked significant oppression and attempts to erase Korean culture and identity. The movement's spark was the death of Emperor Gojong in January 1919, which fueled national outrage and symbolized Japanese efforts to undermine Korean sovereignty. Additionally, the global shift towards self-determination, highlighted by President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech, inspired Koreans. The February 8th Declaration by Koreans in Tokyo further catalyzed a nationwide call for freedom and independence. This movement was a culmination of longstanding frustrations, representing a collective demand for sovereignty, dignity, and the restoration of Korea's national identity, transcending mere protest to embody a deep-seated quest for justice and recognition.

The 33

The March 1st Movement was spearheaded by a group of 33 nationalists. These individuals came from diverse backgrounds, including education, religion, and the arts, united by their commitment to Korea's sovereignty and cultural identity. Here's a closer look at some of the core activists who played pivotal roles in the movement:

Son Byong Hi (손병희)

- Background: Leader of the Chondogyo religion, which played a significant role in the movement. Son's influence and organizational network were instrumental in mobilizing mass participation in the protests.

Kim Gu (김구)

- Background: Although not one of the 33 signers of the Declaration of Independence, Kim Gu is often associated with the broader movement due to his significant role in the Korean independence movement. He later became the head of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile.

Ahn Changho (안창호)

- Background: A prominent independence activist and one of the early leaders of the Korean-American immigrant community in the United States. Ahn was deeply involved in educational and political activities aimed at promoting Korean nationalism and independence.

Choe Nam-seon (최남선)

- Background: A historian, educator, and journalist, Choe was responsible for drafting the Korean Declaration of Independence. His intellectual contributions and commitment to Korean heritage were vital in articulating the philosophical underpinnings of the independence movement.

Yi Haeung (이해응)

- Background: A leader within the Chondogyo religion and an active participant in the independence movement. His religious and social standing provided a significant platform for the movement's ideals.

Hong Jin (홍진)

- Background: Another key figure from the Chondogyo religion, he played a critical role in organizing the protests and spreading the message of independence across Korean communities.

Yu Gwansun

The Women

Women played a critical and transformative role in the March 1st Movement, breaking societal norms and contributing significantly to Korea's fight for independence. Their involvement was not only a testament to their courage and resilience but also marked a pivotal moment in the history of women's participation in the public and political spheres of Korea.

Yu Gwansun: A Symbol of Resistance

One of the most iconic figures of the movement is Yu Gwansun, an 18-year-old student who became a symbol of Korea's struggle for independence. Born into a patriotic family, Yu was studying at Ewha Haktang (now Ewha Womans University) in Seoul when the March 1st Movement began. She returned to her hometown in Chungcheong province to organize and lead one of the largest demonstrations on April 1, 1919.

Yu's leadership in the movement led to her arrest by Japanese authorities. Despite being imprisoned and subjected to torture, she remained defiant, reportedly shouting independence slogans from her cell. Yu Gwansun's death in prison at the age of 17 (by lunar calendar, 18 by solar calendar) became a rallying cry for the movement, symbolizing the sacrifices made by Koreans, particularly women, in the quest for independence.

Women's participation in the March 1st Movement was widespread and impactful. They organized and led demonstrations, distributed leaflets, and used their roles in society to mobilize support against Japanese colonial rule. The involvement of women was significant for several reasons:

Breaking Gender Norms: The active participation of women in public protests challenged the Confucian social norms of the time, which largely confined women to domestic roles. Their involvement in the movement was a bold assertion of their political agency and a step toward gender equality in Korea.

Mobilizing Communities: Women utilized their networks and roles within families and communities to spread the message of the movement. They played a crucial role in mobilizing both men and women for demonstrations, showing that the fight for independence was a collective effort transcending gender divisions.

Suffering and Sacrifice: Women protestors, like their male counterparts, faced arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. Their suffering highlighted the brutalities of Japanese colonial rule and galvanized further support for the independence movement both within Korea and internationally.

Religious Groups

Religious and educational groups played pivotal roles in the March 1st Movement, leveraging their organizational structures, moral authority, and networks to mobilize against Japanese colonial rule. These groups not only provided leadership and resources but also fostered a sense of unity and purpose among the Korean people, contributing significantly to the movement's widespread support and impact.


The Christian community in Korea was at the forefront of the March 1st Movement. Christians saw the movement as both a moral and nationalistic duty, driven by beliefs in justice, peace, and the inherent dignity of all humans. Churches became centers for organizing protests and disseminating information about the independence movement. Notably, many of the 33 signatories of the Korean Declaration of Independence were Christians, reflecting the deep involvement of the Christian community in the struggle for Korea’s freedom.

Christian leaders used their pulpits to encourage participation in the movement, while church networks facilitated communication and coordination across different regions. The brutal crackdowns on Christian protestors by Japanese authorities, including the massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Jeamri, where many were burned alive in a church, underscored the risks taken by religious adherents in their pursuit of independence.


Buddhists in Korea also played a significant role in the March 1st Movement. Although Buddhism had been marginalized under previous regimes, the movement provided an opportunity for Buddhists to assert their support for national independence and re-establish their presence in Korean society. Monks and lay Buddhists participated in demonstrations, and temples served as sanctuaries for activists and as venues for meetings and educational


Students and Teachers

Students and teachers across Korea were instrumental in spreading the ideals of the March 1st Movement and organizing protests. Educational institutions, especially those with connections to religious organizations, became hotbeds of resistance against Japanese rule.

Students: Young Koreans, energized by the global currents of self-determination and national sovereignty, organized protests, distributed leaflets, and engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Student-led demonstrations were among the most vibrant expressions of the movement, reflecting a generational demand for independence and freedom. The participation of students highlighted the movement’s appeal to the ideals of youth and the future of Korea.

Teachers: Educators played a crucial role in the movement by nurturing a sense of national identity and purpose among their students. Many teachers were involved in drafting the declaration of independence, organizing protests, and educating the public on the importance of self-determination. Their leadership was instrumental in mobilizing communities and sustaining the momentum of the movement.


The Role of Education in the Movement

Educational institutions served as important venues for the dissemination of nationalist ideas and the organization of resistance activities. The closures of schools in protest against Japanese rule and the strikes organized by students and teachers demonstrated the educational sector's commitment to the independence movement.


The involvement of religious and educational groups in the March 1st Movement was a testament to the broad-based support for Korean independence. These groups not only provided organizational support and moral legitimacy to the movement but also helped foster a collective Korean identity centered around shared values of freedom, dignity, and national sovereignty. Their contributions were integral to the movement's enduring legacy, underscoring the importance of faith and education in the pursuit of justice and national self-determination.

Conclusion: The Enduring Spirit of the March 1st Movement


As we reflect on the March 1st Movement and its monumental role in Korea's history, it becomes evident that this was not just a moment of national uprising; it was the awakening of a collective consciousness that has shaped the Korean identity to this day. The movement's legacy is a testament to the resilience, unity, and indomitable spirit of the Korean people, qualities that continue to inspire both within Korea and beyond its borders.


The March 1st Movement serves as a reminder that the quest for freedom and sovereignty is a universal one, transcending time and geography. It underscores the importance of preserving one's cultural heritage and the power of peaceful protest in effecting change. As we commemorate this pivotal moment in Korean history, we also celebrate the enduring values of democracy, human rights, and the unyielding pursuit of justice that the movement championed.


In modern Korea, the spirit of the March 1st Movement lives on, not only as a historical memory but as a guiding light for future generations. It encourages us to remember our past, to honor those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, and to continue striving for a world where dignity, respect, and equality are not just ideals but realities for all.


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