Politics & Policy

No, Martin Luther King Was Not Pro-Riot

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in New York City in 1967 (Library of Congress)
To claim otherwise is to pervert the message of his life.

Among the more contemptible rhetorical tricks used this past weekend was the hijacking of Martin Luther King Jr. to enlist him in the cause of rioting. Celebrities, activists, leading journalistic institutions, and even the Martin Luther King Jr. Center itself are participating in a misinformation campaign by citing King’s remark that “the riot is the language of the unheard” but leaving out the context in which he said it. King was no proponent of riots.

The “language of the unheard” comment comes from King’s “the Other America” speech, two versions of which King gave, one on April 14, 1967, at Stanford, and the other on March 14, 1968, at Grosse Point South High School. These speeches are demands for better living conditions for blacks, not just technical legal equality before the law. King didn’t defend rioters but merely said that there was understandable anger underlying their actions. In the Stanford version of the speech King said:

It is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.

Such words may not have been the consensus in King’s time, but today few would dispute them. Far from being radical, in 2020 King’s sentiments seem obvious: This past weekend’s riots didn’t develop out of thin air. Riots usually don’t. But though the anger about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was understandable, it was counterproductive for it to turn into a free-for-all of looting, arson, and destruction for its own sake, some of which did not even seem motivated by racial grievances against the police but by the eternal anarchist craving to burn first, propose solutions later.

King would be astonished to hear that people claiming to be his acolytes are quoting parts of the above while completely ignoring his life’s work, which was to achieve change through nonviolent resistance. It’s not as though he was unclear about this. It requires either ignorance or deception to make him appear to sanction riots. The section about the “language of the unheard” immediately follows this paragraph:

Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

In the Grosse Point version of the speech, just three weeks before he was murdered, King said:

And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years.

Despite the sickening history of racist oppression in the United States, King understood that there could be no path forward that involved cleaving the interests of blacks and whites. An orgy of destruction that begins in a hunger for justice for black people quickly destroys black lives and livelihoods. Rioters tell themselves they aren’t hurting the people they are obviously hurting. Some nebulous third party– insurance companies! — will assume all costs, they say. They won’t. Rioting causes white suffering and black suffering. Generation Woke forgets this lesson at its peril.

“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King said in the Stanford speech. “And so we are all in the same situation: the salvation of the Negro will mean the salvation of the white man. And the destruction of life and of the ongoing progress of the Negro will be the destruction of the ongoing progress of the nation.” To put it another way, destruction is not progress.

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