You’ve undoubtedly seen the quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
As violent and destructive unrest has enveloped the country, the more woke members of your Facebook friends list — the ones with the “Black Lives Matter” frames on their profile pictures — have posted this on their feed.
In fact, Martin Luther King Jr.’s son, Martin Luther King III, even put it on Twitter, where those friends who prefer their thoughts in 280 characters or less and thus aren’t on Facebook likely retweeted it:
As my father explained during his lifetime, a riot is the language of the unheard.
— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) May 28, 2020
Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice King, also tweeted something very similar:
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
My father was telling us to hear.
He was beckoning us to do justice.
He was provoking us to true peace.
A call to conscience. pic.twitter.com/sehI6CYtZB
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) June 3, 2020
And it got memed, too. Check out this user, who declared that it was one of the only MLK quotes those without melanin could use:
These are the only M
LK white folks are alsowed to use from now on.
And only if you’re posting it to other white folks to get them into action.
That’s it. pic.twitter.com/4knMNkfxSQ
— Swordsfall – Role Kickstarter Open NOW! (@Swordsfall1) June 4, 2020
As a white person, I’ve duly noted this.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has been replaced by four quotes that basically reinforce this guy’s worldview. Thanks, @Swordsfall1!
The media also liked this quote. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, ran an article titled, “King called riots ‘the language of the unheard.’ Black Philadelphians say it’s now time to listen,” that was dedicated to how it was time to have a “difficult conversation” about Philadelphia’s racial issues. (Wait, a city that’s been Democrat-run since time immemorial has racial issues? I’m shocked, really. This would never happen in any other Democrat-run city like, say, Minneapolis.)
While the quote didn’t necessarily appear in many other headlines, it appeared in other articles, too.
One of the The Guardian’s many, many apologias for rioters included it.
So did an article from The Conversation which may have had the most ridiculous title and premise of the lot: “A justification for unrest? Look no further than the Bible and the Founding Fathers.”
Since this is apparently one of four MLK quotes I’m allowed to use, given that the only melanin I really have seems to be the freckles on my arms, I figured I’d do some research into the context behind it and how it fits into his wider philosophy.
Well, it turns out maybe I shouldn’t be using it.
In context, it’s actually completely different from the interpretation everyone keeps on forcing on it.
A little bit more context, because apparently that’s not really something anyone cares about when spreading a one-sentence quote online: King was speaking to a mostly white audience in 1967, according to The Week.
This was two years after the Watts riots and as racial violence was beginning to ramp up in America in places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Newark, New Jersey.
This was 53 years ago, back when de jure segregation had just ended and de facto segregation (like, for instance, the semi-private “segregation academy” schools in the South, which were set up specifically to circumvent the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education) was still going strong. Open racism was still an epidemic. The idea of a black president was laughable at the time and the first elected black governor (Douglas Wilder of Virginia) was 22 years off.
In other words, it was a much different time.
And yet, King didn’t really say anything as incendiary as people seem to believe he did.
“Let me say as I’ve always said, I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating,” King said.
“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. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
That first sentence always gets omitted when this is posted.
No one wants to hear King say “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.” They just want the part that excuses the riots, even though conditions are far different than they were 53 years ago.
This isn’t the only time he used this phrase — but again, it was qualified. Here’s him talking to CBS News’ Mike Wallace in 1966, which will give you a bit of perspective on what he really meant.
Again, the quote has to be seen in context. King was answering a question from Wallace about “an increasingly vocal minority who disagree totally with your tactics,” such as the Nation of Islam and black power advocates like Stokely Carmichael.
“I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro,” King said. “I think that we’ve got to see that 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 economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
Throughout the interview, however, he preached nonviolence. At the top, CBS has a clip of him saying: “Now what I’m saying is this: I would like for all of us to believe in nonviolence, but I’m here to say tonight that if every Negro in the United States turns against nonviolence, I’m going to stand up as a lone voice and say, ‘This is the wrong way!'”
He also said it would be “impractical and immoral” for African-Americans “to turn to violence.”
“I will never change in my basic idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the Negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral,” he told CBS.
Where in this interview or where in the other speech do you hear King approve of riots? In this quote, where does Martin Luther King’s son see his father countenancing violence?
Perhaps then @Swordsfall1 won’t be so eager to have white folks using it.
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