With the escalation of civil disobedience and peaceful protests into chaos, an alarming phenomenon is cropping up in the news and on social media: defense of violent riots and looting sprees.
Given that the riots immediately followed protests over the police death of George Floyd, the left has given those who resort to violence and theft great benefit of the doubt.
In an op-ed for The National Review, Kyle Smith decimates what he calls one of “the more contemptible rhetorical tricks used this past weekend” to defend the riots: namely, the hijacking of an immortal quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on violent protests.
“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,'” Smith states.
What these voices are conveniently leaving out, however, is the context in which Dr. King said those words.
The quote comes from Dr. King’s “The Other America” speech, given once at Stanford University in April of 1967 and at Grosse Pointe South High School in March of 1968.
In these powerful speeches, Dr. King demanded better living conditions for black Americans, not mere equality with their white fellow citizens according to the letter of the law.
While his words have been contorted to essentially justify riots, here is what Dr. King actually said at Stanford:
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.
Dr. King’s words here ring true to this day. The past week’s riots didn’t “develop out of thin air.” Had Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s killer, been made an example of far sooner—which would actually benefit law enforcement and society at large by weeding out an obviously bad apple, protests may never have gone beyond simple civil disobedience.
Nonetheless, Smith argues, “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.
Immediately following his “language of the unheard” comment, Dr. King said:
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 speech, just three weeks before his murder, Dr. 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.
“An orgy of destruction that begins in a hunger for justice for black people quickly destroys black lives and livelihoods,” Smith concludes. “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.”
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