In Ferguson riots, social media corrupts MLK’s message

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.

  • BJ

    “Not everything on the internet can be trusted” -April 1, 1866 Abraham Lincoln

  • Neil

    “The message seems clear. Martin Luther King Jr. saw violence as a legitimate form of protest.”

    Huh. That’s not the message that I got from that quote at all. Anyone that knows the first thing about Dr. King knows that he believed in nonviolent protest. I think that makes his acknowledgement of how and why violent protest can happen all the more illustrative. I haven’t seen anywhere – even the cited use by Anonymous – that used that quote to say Dr. King supported violent protest. Because, among other things, that would be a stupid and obviously false thing to claim.

    • Well, no, if that were true, the tweeter wouldn’t castigate those noting that MLK was condemning riots as “sanctimonious.”

      And Anonymous would’ve instead, quoted “Riots are self defeating and socially destructive.”

      • Neil

        So if they had used some word other than “sanctimoniously” maybe it’d be okay? Did they have to cite that Dr. King believed in non-violent protest or can we just assume that that’s part of the general record? I guess I’m just not seeing what the objection is exactly. And I still don’t see how the quote is misrepresenting Dr. King without assuming facts not in evidence. Seems to me it kind of falls into the category of Someone Said Something On the Internet.

        • BJ

          I have to agree that the quote was used in a way to try and prove MLK thought rioting was OK.

          • Piano88

            the analysis of the quote is too “black or white” “this or that” .. Of course he was pro peace and he continued to promote peace… I think he more just understood there anguish .. “Riots are the language of the unheard” sounds compassionate to me

        • The category actually is “Someone Said Something On the Internet and People Believed It”.

          • Neil

            If anyone believes that Dr. King would support rioting then we failed them long before last night. One can understand WHY something happens without thinking it’s okay. I can understand why people get into fights over Black Friday sales without thinking it’s okay. I can understand why my kid pitches a fit when I tell him he can’t watch TV without thinking it is okay.
            The quote and even the coopting of it seem pretty innocuous to me and certainly not advocating rioting so much as advocating undertanding and empathy.

        • Jen

          Anonymous took the quote out of context and overlaid it on a photo of Dr. King. The overall implication is clearly that MLK Jr. condoned rioting. Reading the rest of what he said in the interview before and after the quoted phrase makes it clear that he did not in fact condone rioting, nor would he encourage what is happening in Ferguson today. Anonymous is off-base this time, and I think it’s intentional.

          • siditty

            I’ve given up on humanity, in particular white people in the last few years, however, I’m willing to say why this story is flawed. The point of people sharing the quote wasn’t to condone rioting, but they understand. White people are so focused on the looting and destruction of property, yet they don’t give a damn about a kid lying dead on the ground from jaywalking and the police departments horrible handling of the case causing concern. They talk about this boy’s parents and then get mad that his parents are upset that he’s dead. Of course they’re upset their kid is dead, who wouldn’t be?

            White people just lack empathy and love to dismiss people of color for airing legitimate grievances. Black people aren’t the same to you, so you don’t care when they die or when they fear for their lives.

          • He wasn’t shot for “jaywalking”, he was shot for attacking an officer, causing, or at least contributing to, that officer’s gun becoming unholstered and going off while still trapped in his vehicle, then running, then turning around and charging that same officer. He had also just robbed a convenience store, and Darren Wilson had been active on the radio channel that gave his description. “Jaywalking”, please.

            I do not tolerate oppression of the weak, regardless of skin colour or whatever other irrelevant categories society chooses to recognize. We are all human. But this is not oppression, it is distortion and disruption of the facts for political gain.

  • Joanna

    “The message seems clear,” you say. But this it is not the only way to interpret this quotation or the intent of those how have retweeterd it. You state that retweeters seem to think Martin Luther King advocated riots, whereas in this speech he was warning of their inevitability in the face of racist intransigence. But why do you assume that we (who retweeted) don’t know that? I retweeted this quotation (and replied to our comment via Twitter) precisely because Martin Luther King is DESCRIBING (and warning about) something important, not because he is advocating rioting.

    • The clue is in the phrase “sanctimoniously quoting”.

      • Joanna

        How about “condescendingly not replying to the substance of responses”?

        • Jen

          Anonymous called those quoting MLK (presumably about his belief in nonviolent protest) “sanctimonious” (def: making a show of being morally superior to other people). Bob’s right; that’s the key to understanding Anonymous’s point.

          Retweeters of the Anonymous quote may or may not know the full context. Retweeting without further comment sure seems to endorse the implication that Anonymous is making.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Thank you.

    I noticed one of the Star Tribune’s bloggers (a horrid and useless bunch but for Molly Prismeyer) used it incorrectly as well despite being a professor on racial justice.

    • Levy-Pounds didn’t use it in any logical way one way or the other. She just said some people protested peacefully. Some people rioted. And as Dr. King said. “XXXX.”

      And that was it. She laid no foundation for the King quote and didn’t explain why she felt it significant .

      But, OK, let’s just assume that rioting IS, in fact, the language of the unheard.

      So what?

      What does that mean, then, in the big scheme of things?

      King answered that question and why his answer isn’t being debated is a bit of a mystery.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        There’s no profit in debating his answer, and as I’ve said before a nuanced discussion is far too much to expect from public discourse.

  • siditty

    Why is it hard to understand that people aren’t trying to justify rioting, but that they understand why people who are so frustrated and feel that the system you love so much has failed them, that they feel their only recourse is to resort to violence. Let’s also not pretend everyone out there is looting and rioting and that there are some out there protesting. Rioting is the change of the unheard, and as per usual the media cares more about upholding stereotypes of the dangerous black people and whitewashing MLK than they do about dead kids.