Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What did Martin Luther King Jr. mean, "A riot is the language of the unheard"?


Last year about this time, a whole year before the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown, CBS's 60 Minutes posted an overtime segment featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. The segment is part of last year's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington. Its headline is the King quote you may have heard repeated since the tear gas began to cloud Ferguson's night air:
"A riot is the language of the unheard."
The overtime piece features Mike Wallace's 1966 interview with King in which he asked the Civil Rights leader how he felt about a growing number of Black people rejecting non-violent methods. Here is part of what was said, but I hope you watch the full video interview yourself.
MIKE WALLACE: There's an increasingly vocal minority who disagree totally with your tactics, Dr. King.

KING: There's no doubt about that. I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don't think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And 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. 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.

WALLACE: How many summers like this do you imagine that we can expect?

KING: Well, I would say this: we don't have long. The mood of the Negro community now is one of urgency, one of saying that we aren't going to wait. That we've got to have our freedom. We've waited too long. So that I would say that every summer we're going to have this kind of vigorous protest. My hope is that it will be non-violent. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive. I would hope that we can avoid riots, but that we would be as militant and as determined next summer and through the winter as we have been this summer. And I think the answer about how long it will take will depend on the federal government, on the city halls of our various cities, and on White America to a large extent. This is where we are at this point, and I think White America will determine how long it will be and which way we go in the future.
Lagniappe: I also recommend this editorial by Rebecca Carroll at the Guardian, "Why are white people scared of black people's rage at Mike Brown's death?" Carroll addresses her complaint directly to a white audience. Here's a key passage:
You are the ones who created this godforsaken racist system by using your circumstantial power and privilege 400 years ago to institutionalize white supremacy. Now use that power and privilege you still have, 400 years later, to dismantle it.

And please don’t quibble about whether you have any direct lineage to the architects of racism. You are benefitting from it, so you have a direct responsibility to figure out how to undo it. Because maybe you’ve seen what happens when we black people try to undo it in 2014 – they call in the National Guard.
Finally, if you've been wondering where people who are more informed about what's happening in Ferguson get their news, try this Vox.com list of reporters who are tweeting news live from the ground in Ferguson.

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