Black Lives Matter

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Unwavering Opposition to Violence Still Matters

His famous line that a "riot is the language of the unheard" is often taken out of context.

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"In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard," Martin Luther King Jr. told a Stanford University audience in 1967.

Social media users have circulated the quotation, some using it to partially justify the violence and destruction perpetrated by some of the protesters participating in demonstrations that have swept the country over the past week. Last Saturday, King's son posted it to Twitter.

But this analysis of riots, which King also made in a 1966 interview with 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace, is often taken out of context. King's plea was for critics to condemn the social injustices motivating the riots as harshly as they condemned the riots themselves.

"I will never change in my idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice," King told Wallace.   

King made his position on violence crystal clear in that interview: "I would hope that we could avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive." 

Why did King consider violent protests self-defeating? At a 1968 church meeting, he told congregants that rioting makes "a right-wing takeover more likely," arguing that "every time a riot develops, it helps [the segregationist presidential candidate] George Wallace."

The violent clashes over the last week may have already created a backlash, with 58 percent of respondents to a recent poll saying they support the use of military force to restore order to America's cities.

Journalists such CNN's Chris Cuomo and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones have downplayed the seriousness of property destruction and violence by some protesters, with Cuomo asking, "Show me where it says protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful?"

"Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man's neck until all of the life is leeched out of his body," Hannah-Jones told CBS on June 2, referring to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. "Destroying property which can be replaced is not violence."

But political leaders in some of the communities where the property destruction has taken place have shown that it's possible both to acknowledge the horrors of police brutality while at the same time denouncing theft, violence, and destruction.

"This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a May 30 speech following a night of destruction in her city. 

Many political and civil rights leaders of the 1960s were able both to condemn rioting and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the grievances. New York Mayor John Lindsay soothed racial tensions following King's 1968 assassination by calmly walking the streets of Harlem with other civil rights leaders and reminding the public of the fallen leader's unwavering opposition to violence

The city's current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has lacked the courage to forcefully condemn both the rioting and his police force's brutal tactics. Minnesota officials initially tried to deflect blame for the riots onto outside infiltrators before the press exposed their misinformation.

And President Donald Trump hid in a bunker and tweeted out incendiary messages about the coming show of force against the rioters.

Atlanta's Bottoms has said the solution to many of these problems lies at the ballot box. "If you want a change in America, go and register to vote," she said in her May 30 speech.

While voting for candidates who support policing and criminal justice reform could have a marginal impact in the long run, protesters are demanding immediate action.

When police harass and assault protesters they should be held accountable through anti-chokehold bills and by putting an end to the legal doctrine that protects them from criminal prosecution.

The internet has further decentralized activism, making today's protests less uniform than ever before, which means that we all bear the burden of condemning the initiation of violence, no matter the perpetrator, no matter the cause.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Lex Villena.

Music credits: "Bloodstain" by Royal Nature licensed through Artlist. 

Photo credits: "Bill de Blasio wearing a mask," Kristin Callahan/ACE/Newscom; "MLK black and white portrait," Benjamin E. "Gene" Forte—CNP/Newscom; "Ayanna Pressley at the Unity Rally, Elizabeth Warren," CC-BY 2.0; "Justin Amash of Michigan at the 2012 Liberty Political Action," Gage Skidmore; "Hannah Jones," Alice Vergueiro/Abraji 

NEXT: 47 U.S.C. § 230 Preempts State Right of Publicity Claims

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  1. Andrew wishes Fredo was aborted. We all know it’s true.

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  2. You know what? I have disagreed with Reason a lot over the past couple years. But I honestly felt your coverage this week has been some solid B+…A- work. You guys did really well. I didn’t agree with everything you wrote, but I have appreciated a lot of it.

    I hope you all can keep this up. I think it is largely due to not obsessing about Trump every single damn article. There was some OrangeMan fetish, but it was balanced by a lot of other writing. Please keep it up.

  3. What is ignored about King is that he was a christian minister first, and not a socialist rabble-rouser.

    1. >christian minister
      No wonder anti-Semitism is endemic in the African-American community.

  4. “Atlanta’s Bottoms has said the solution to many of these problems lies at the ballot box. “If you want a change in America, go and register to vote,” she said in her May 30 speech.”
    Well they already tried that when they elected her and the lefties in Minneapolis. Or did she mean reelect Trump.

    1. The only change would be voting out Ds, so… yep

      1. It really is insane how easily this shit could be fixed by voting. Even if voter box intimidation were as prevalent as people say, if enough individuals actually bothered to vote, their numbers would obviate that issue. Instead, you get protests that are effectively meaningless because there’s no long-term consequences.

        1. It’s actually not easily fixed by voting. Here’s two obvious problems with that theory:

          1) Politicians lie…. a lot. What they run on and what they say in front of cameras can have virtually nothing to do with what they actually spend their time doing. They are not obligated in anyway to do anything that sold you on them in the first place. The media and the voters rarely give them push back or even investigate their voting records if they like what they’re hearing regardless of it’s superficiality.

          2) Nobody bothers reading actual legislation. This used to apply to just voters and the journalists that were bad at their jobs. Now it’s basically everyone including the legislators. The size of bills have grown so obscenely large that any individual cannot be expected to know it’s content. The way that favors are now passed on to lobbyists is by claiming a bill is about one thing and having 90% of its content be unrelated pork to preferred donors. A great example of this is the anti-lynching bill that just went through congress that Rand Paul is being shamed for opposing. I just read 5 articles on it with almost all of it being about what an ahole Paul is. What’s in the bill? What’s the wording? Does it have extra funding for Planned Parenthood or the Lincoln center snuck in there? We’ll never until after it’s law because the voters and media couldn’t give less of a shit about the technicalities. As long as they’re told that it symbolically achieves what they want to hear, unintended consequences and costs bed damned.

          There isn’t anything that is solved by voting in the current environment. There’s no transparency about the actual process. We’re only allowed to see the surface level circus so how can we possibly know what’s actually going on?

          1. “Nobody bothers reading actual legislation.”

            Not true. Some legislators read it right after passing the legislation.

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    2. After two cops senselessly beat on a couple of college students in order to enforce the curfew, the Mayor’s office in Atlanta declared the curfew is absolutely going to continue through the weekend.

      It’s not the stupid curfew policy that’s to blame, after all, it’s just that one bad egg.

      1. The people who knowingly and intentionally violate the curfew bear ultimate responsibility.

        1. You will comply or the beatings will continue! Respect mah authoritah!

    3. Hmmm. I thought “Atlanta’s Bottoms” is what the Gold Club re-branded as.

    4. I keep seeing this more and more. “Vote!” in response to recent happenings. Every time I respond that voting doesn’t change anything except superficially, I get dogpiled and called a cynical moron. These people have very likely been voting all their adult lives and are still pissed off about everything. Vote if it makes you feel better, but please stop living under the illusion that you have some meaningful choice in the way things are run.

  5. Fact of the matter is breaking shit gets things done. If memory serves, some of the largest protest worldwide were against the Iraq war. That went swimmingly well.

    But the other side of the coin is that either through youth, incompetence, idiocy, subversiveness, or plain ole nihilism; the current protesters are under the illusion that the more shit gets broken, the more demands they will have met. There is a sweet spot of chaos verses reward, of duration verses capitulation where the public is willing to listen and be somewhat sympathetic.

    That ended 15 minutes ago.

    1. The looters in LA have successfully been awarded $150 million for all their hard work and sacrifice. Next time they want something they know what needs to be done.

  6. “Journalists such CNN’s Chris Cuomo and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones have downplayed the seriousness of property destruction and violence by some protesters, with Cuomo asking, “Show me where it says protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful?”

    “”Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man’s neck until all of the life is leeched out of his body,” Hannah-Jones told CBS on June 2, referring to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “Destroying property which can be replaced is not violence.””

    As example of example of left-wing apologists for violence piles up – these clowns are simply to instances – I keep getting relatives showing me Facebook posts about how the violence is the fault of right-wing racist agents provocateurs.

    1. It’s almost insane that Cuomo actually said that. “I want protests where people are leaving the scene bloody and in tears!”

      Christ, what assholes. Obviously he wants that, since he works for the news and they love big sensationalist events, but usually they try to be a bit more sly about it.

    2. I keep getting relatives showing me Facebook posts about how the violence is the fault of right-wing racist agents provocateurs.

      Is there even evidence of this, or is it just hearsay? I have a feeling most white supremacists are jacking it in their attics.

      1. There’s some conflation between nazis who fantasize about promoting a race war and some people called “Bougaloos” or some such who are right-wingers opposed to *all* police violence, including against whites, and are badthinkers because they don’t focus on white supremacy. Allegedly known for their Hawaiian shirts, the Bougaloos supposedly take a confrontational approach.

        And the media found a right-wing group with about 100 followers where they talk about causing trouble at these demonstrations.

        Ultimately the historians will piece it all together. Maybe there are some right-wingers who get out of their attics long enough to enact these fantasies of theirs. I do not know.

        For the moment, I’m going to believe my lying eyes and look at the videos of the violence, and notice that the apologists for the violence are on the left – from the chattering classes who presumably look at the same evidence as everyone else. Maybe their desire for violence (against other people of course) leads them to be hornswoggled by right-wing tricksters, though it seems unlikely.

        1. Ultimately the historians will piece it all together.

          This shows a faith in the industry that is unfounded, to be blunt. The historians are the ones who radicalized these people to begin with.

          1. It wasn’t the historians but the critical theorists that wormed their way into history departments.

        2. Everything I’ve seen in that vein so far has been people who assume that these Portlandia Antifa are white supremacists causing trouble because they are lily white privileged upper middle class assholes.

          No, that’s Antifa. They are happy to deliver bricks and molotov cocktails to your peaceful demonstration, and use you as fodder and human shields, because while they are dicks, they are also pussies.

          1. No, not dicks. They are assholes. Keep your Team America references straight, please.

  7. There was a blog post concerning an update to a programming language–or at least there should have been. Instead, it was devoted to raising awareness of BLM and to that poor man’s execution. However, if the writer truly felt sympathetic, he’d be writing non-stop about police brutality, the perpetual murdering of black men by black men, eminent domain, the drug war, etc. Those issues not only affect minorities and poor people but everybody. However, that requires work; that requires curiosity; that requires truly caring about the people afflicted by a power-hungry state and subcultures. It’s so much easier to virtue-signal.

  8. Little did Mr. King realize that the left wing would take over, at least municipally, and do to the AA demographic over decades and with a straight face what the most ardent grand wizard dragon hobbit KKK member could only dream.

  9. King made his position on violence crystal clear in that interview: “I would hope that we could avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.”

    MLK was one of “those people”, and didn’t know what was best for his race.

    /White Antifa Rioter.

  10. MLK was great civil rights and possibly a rape enabler.

    By the the FBI record on him is unsealed Trump would be out of office. No more deflections from the cancel culture crowd.

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  12. Qualified Immunity doesn’t protect police from criminal prosecution. It protects them from civil lawsuits. Holding cops criminally accountable it’s an even harder problem, because juries are reluctant to convict cops. I still can’t believe Philando Castille’s killer was acquitted.

  13. Zach’s lack of attention to the violent police and military personnel is consistent with his record as just another closeted clinger parading in unconvincing libertarian drag.

    Carry on, clingers . . . for six more months, that is.

  14. Carry on, clingers

    So sayeth the Reason gecko, clinging to anything he touches.

  15. “a riot is the language of the unheard”

    No it’s the language of a$$h0les, anyone can be heard without violence if they try, riot a$$h0les just want to destroy & loot.

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  17. Seriously?

    “The internet has further decentralized activism, making today’s protests less uniform than ever before, which means that we all bear the burden of condemning the initiation of violence, no matter the perpetrator, no matter the cause.”

    Alright, cool. All perpetrators of violent riots and all causes must be condemned? Who are you? The British Empire?

    So, we are just going to sit here and pretend that the Stamp Act Riots and Boston Tea Party were just a bunch of dudes sitting outside with signs peacefully protesting? Hmm, I see some cognitive dissonance afoot.

    1. I’ll throw you a bone and say that you’re right. There’s been some historical instances where violence funneled against people who largely had nothing to do with the policies that people were upset about yielded results that many libertarians would be happy about in the long run. I’d like to think that we would be principled enough to still condemn such acts had we have been living at the time even if it did give us what we want.

      I think you’re missing the broader point. By hand waving this violence for the side that you sympathize with and suggesting the police stand down and let it happen, you’re sending a message to other radical elements. That message is going to be that the police will allow indiscriminate destruction of property and violence against innocents to further the political goals of groups that are large enough and chaotic enough as long as it protects the innocents in the group.

      If you’re fine with that, are you okay with Islamic groups doing it to protest forever wars? Vegans that think we need to stop industrial farming? Anti-abortionists burning abortion clinics? How about alt-right doing it for whatever slights they think are legitimate?

      Once you understand that politics isn’t about codifying absolute morality, it’s simply about trade offs, you can understand that nearly everyone has legitimate moral grievances from their point of view. If the goal isn’t to get the government to be as neutral as possible (or preferably as small as possible so that they’re not the ones adjudicating morality) then what you’re essentially endorsing is for the government (the people that are allowed to use violence) to shape policy based on who’s most willing to be violent, loud and destructive to achieve their preferences. Are you absolutely certain that your preferences are going to win in the marketplace of chaos? You’re not going to like that world if you lose…..

  18. Orwell’s 1984 “doublespeak”. NY Times, ” Looting and rioting is not violence.” BLM protester’s sign, “White silence is violence”. Which is it? I can hardly wait for two minute hate and hate weeks to begin. Maybe if whites are lucky they’ll only have to deal with reeducation camps. All these virtue signalers will not be exempt. Loom at the Congressional Democrats getting called racist for taking a knee, all wearing Kente cloth. Not only culture appropriation, but they ran the store out of stock for the culture appropriate wearers.

  19. Chris Cuomo: “Show me where it says protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful?”

    Then by all means looters should target Mr. Cuomo’s residence for destruction and theft!

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