'A riot is the language of the unheard,' Martin Luther King Jr. explained 53 years ago

Peter Weber

Rioting and looting isn't new in America — and it isn't exclusive to any race. As areas of Minneapolis shifted from peaceful protest against the death of George Floyd to looting, arson, and vandalism on Wednesday and Thursday night, the King Center — founded by Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow to promote MLK Jr.'s "nonviolent philosophy and methodology" — posted this excerpt from King's 1967 "The Other America" speech at Stanford University.

Speaking two years after California's Watts riots in August 1965 and race riots in Harlem the previous summer, King spent a few minutes trying to explain the cause of rioting to his predominantly white audience.

America has consistently "taken a positive step forward on the question of racial justice and racial equality" only to follow it with "certain backward steps," King said. Because of widespread and widely ignored black poverty and racial injustice, "all of our cities are potentially powder kegs," he added, and "many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots." King continued:

Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. ... 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. And 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. [Martin Luther King Jr., "The Other America"]

You can read King's entire speech or watch it here.

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