One of the problems with Twitter, a Google search, and a shaky grasp of history is it provides fertile ground for people to corrupt a meaningful message.
In the aftermath of the violence in Ferguson, this is a typical tweet gaining traction on social networks.
The message seems clear. Martin Luther King Jr. saw violence as a legitimate form of protest.
That assertion, however, couldn’t be more wrong.
King understood the cause of rioting in the mid ’60s, but he hardly approved of them.
King made his comment to Mike Wallace of CBS News in 1966 as his leadership and strategy of non-violence was being theatened by more militant activists like Stokely Carmichael.
“If every Negro in America turns their back on non-violence, I’m going to stand up as the lone voice and say this is the wrong way,” he said in a speech, then reiterated the point in the interview with Wallace.
“I think for the Negro to turn to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral,” he said.
Wallace pressed King, noting that younger leaders had a different approach, and King acknowledged the new leaders were advocating violence, a strategy that had its followers.
“I don’t think these leaders 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 this 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 the reality for the Negro.
“I think 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 the economic plight of the Negro poor which has worsened over the last few years,” he said.
“Riots are self defeating and socially destructive,” he said.
That’s not sanctimony. That’s history.
It’s important to note, however, that identifying King’s aversion to violence does not in any way dismiss the underpinnings of the violence. That much was clear in his “The Other America” speech at Stanford.
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.
But at the same time, 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. 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. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
He also made clear that non-violence is not a reason to do nothing.