On riots, and rebellion in the United States
|Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at Grosse Point High School|
Despite the successes of the civil rights movement in the United States by 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. found his nonviolent posture challenged by a black power movement that instead of accelerating change in areas of social and economic justice brought it to a halt. Less than a month before his assassination on April 4, 1968 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Grosse Pointe High School on March 14, 1968 "The Other America" where he addressed, among other things, riots.
"Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence 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."
“Riots just don’t pay off,” said King. He pronounced them an objective failure beyond morals or faith. “For if we say that power is the ability to effect change, or the ability to achieve purpose,” he said, “then it is not powerful to engage in an act that does not do that–no matter how loud you are, and no matter how much you burn.” Likewise, he exhorted the staff to combat the “romantic illusion” of guerrilla warfare in the style of Che Guevara. No “black” version of the Cuban revolution could succeed without widespread political sympathy, he asserted, and only a handful of the black minority itself favored insurrection. King extolled the discipline of civil disobedience instead, which he defined not as a right but a personal homage to untapped democratic energy. The staff must “bring to bear all of the power of nonviolence on the economic problem,” he urged, even though nothing in the Constitution promised a roof or a meal. “I say all of these things because I want us to know the hardness of the task,” King concluded, breaking off with his most basic plea: “We must not be intimidated by those who are laughing at nonviolence now.”
In a 60 Minutes interview around the same time he re-stated his position on riots to Mike Wallace.
Today, all sides want to claim Martin Luther King Jr., and his family has fought to keep his real memory alive.
Please don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated. A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King. #MLK pic.twitter.com/yGdQXL5MJ3— Be A King (@BerniceKing) January 18, 2021
When riots sparked last year with the death of George Floyd a partial quote by Reverend King circulated widely, but misrepresented the totality of his view on the subject. The second half of the quote at the top of the page was included, but left out his condemnation of riots. It happened again now with the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
That is unacceptable, and his full message needs to be shared. Not edited and misleading partial quotes. The fact is that until his dying day Martin Luther King Jr. embraced nonviolence. He rejected the cult of violence. Will you?