“Riots are the language of the unheard.” This quote from a 1966 CBS interview with Martin Luther King Jr. has become the mantra of the riots erupting across the U.S. in response to the death of George Floyd.
Consequently, these riots have been grafted onto the continuation of Martin Luther King’s vision for social justice, and as a result, many across the U.S. have justified the riots as a means to a greater vision of social equality. However, are these riots truly consistent with the vision of social justice that MLK championed? The short answer is no.
Before getting into MLK’s vision for social justice, I first want to make one thing clear. This article is not trying to diminish the severity of the claims behind the current riots. The rioters’ desire for social justice and equality deserves to be taken seriously. However, the notion that MLK would have condoned the current violence in pursuit of social change is simply not true, and here’s why.
MLK Was the Champion of the Non-Violent Revolution
MLK was the champion of the non-violent revolution, and the entire methodology behind his civil rights advocacy was founded upon the belief that non-violence is the only just means to social reform. In a 1966 CBS 60 Minutes interview, MLK declared, “I would like for all of us to believe in non-violence, but I am here to say tonight that if every negro in the United States turns against non-violence, I am going to stand up as a lone voice and say that this is the wrong way.”
“If every negro in the United States turns against non-violence, I am going to stand up as a lone voice and say that this is the wrong way.” - MLK
It would be an ironic picture indeed to imagine MLK as the lone voice during these protests as many of the rioters chant his words as a mantra to justify violence. It’s even more ironic that this very mantra was taken out of the context of MLK condemning violence as a means to social reform during the same CBS interview. Shortly after he defines riots as the “language of the unheard,” MLK says, “My hope is that they [the civil rights protestors] would be non-violent. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.”
MLK even criticized fellow civil rights activists who desired to use violence as a means to attain social justice. In the same interview, after declaring riots as “self-defeating and socially destructive,” MLK clearly distinguished himself from other activists who were promoting violent protests and declared them a “minority” that didn’t represent the desires of the rest of the 22 million African Americans at the time. Instead, he says, “I will never change in my basic idea that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral.”
“I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.” - MLK
However, MLK’s warning that “riots are the language of the unheard” is extremely poignant, both back in the 1960’s and in our current cultural moment. MLK had a message to transform the political fabric of our nation. If riots are the loudest voice in communicating such a message, then why did he condemn them so openly?
This Is What MLK Was Truly About—Inherent Human Dignity
This is the reason why MLK condemned violence as a means to social reform. He believed that violence was inherently contradictory to the very social change that he wanted to achieve—namely, that every man and woman, regardless of race, possesses inherent and inalienable dignity, and this dignity requires that every human person be treated with respect.
This is the meaning behind America’s treasured principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the belief that “all men [and women] are created equal” and therefore possess “unalienable rights.” This founding principle requires our political and social fabric to uphold the inherent dignity of every human person. In his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, MLK called upon the American people to “cash the check” that was promised in the "Emancipation Proclamation," which declared that African Americans possess the same inherent dignity and equality as the rest of the nation. 100 years after the Proclamation, America’s political and social policies still neglected the dignity and equality entitled to African Americans, and MLK led the movement that “cashed the long-overdue check.”
Violence itself strips individuals of their inherent dignity, the very dignity that MLK dedicated his whole life to protect regardless of race.
So why does violence not fit within MLK’s framework for social justice? Violence itself strips individuals of their inherent dignity, the very dignity that MLK dedicated his whole life to protect regardless of race. Violence is never justified as a means to attaining the justice required of human dignity because the terms themselves are explicitly contradictory. Violence and human dignity are intrinsically at odds with each other because violence itself is the conscious decision to neglect human dignity for its own sake. If Americans, regardless of race, resort to violence in their pursuit of justice, then they become no different than their aggressor.
MLK’s vision for the unqualified affirmation of inherent human dignity rings true in our current cultural moment just as much as it did in the 1960’s. George Floyd’s death is horrendous and tragic because of this very reason—he was stripped of his inherent dignity and of the rights that are in place to protect his dignity. As MLK warned in the interview that has become our modern mantra, “riots are the voice of the unheard,” and the message that is being shouted loud and clear is the desire for the American citizens, regardless of race, to be treated equally and justly as our inherent dignity requires.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” - MLK
However, the reason that MLK did not resort to violence is because it contradicts the very belief in inherent dignity itself. The tragic nature of George Floyd's death only makes sense if we affirm his inherent dignity. But the moment that we resort to violence in pursuit of social justice, we reduce this intrinsic dignity to a relative tool of circumstance.
If there is one thing that the current riots are proving, it’s this: We have to find a way to discuss the needed social change that doesn’t require violence against our fellow citizens. In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, MLK closed his remarks with this beautiful statement, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
Perhaps this is a more fitting mantra for the social change in our current moment, that “unarmed truth and unconditional love” are the foundation for the respect and equality required of our shared inherent dignity in the face of our apparent differences, and it’s through “unarmed truth and unconditional love” that we can work together to achieve lasting social justice for all American citizens.
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