By Edward Achorn
The most popular quote of Martin Luther King Jr. these days is one that seems to extol violence: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
But, of course, the people pushing that quote leave out the rest: “I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.”
And the cherry-picked statement absolutely obscures the reason many Americans revere the slain civil-rights leader — his courageous opposition to hatred and violence, and his belief in the transforming power of love.
I would argue that the Reverend King’s eloquent phrase makes an especially poor match for the murderous and horribly destructive riots of recent days, which have claimed the lives of numerous African Americans, including police officers, while destroying majority-black neighborhoods and a large number of black-owned businesses.
These riots have been encouraged, partially organized, and supported by well-funded political groups, politicians and media figures who have the loudest megaphones imaginable, rather than poor people who could not otherwise be heard.
The death of George Floyd was anything but “unheard.” It was the top story in America, if not around the world. People across the racial and political spectrum voiced anguish and outrage. The officers involved were arrested quickly.
If anything is “unheard,” it is the voice of minority people pleading for more police protection, rather than less, in dangerous neighborhoods. It is minority people pleading for better schools, rather than the ones that powerful special interests refuse to reform. Largely unheard are the black police officers who say it is immoral and dangerous to target them and their colleagues. Largely unheard is hard evidence that America is not “systemically racist,” including peer-reviewed studies of deaths at the hands of police.
The Reverend King used his phrase several times, but not in support of violence. Rather, he explained why poor and desperate people had taken to rioting in the 1960s.
“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 that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years,” he said.
Is that the case today? This year (before COVID-19), blacks enjoyed their lowest unemployment rate in history. Their median household income reached a record high. The number of black-owned businesses has skyrocketed.
Since the 1960s, politics and police forces have been integrated. Blacks run many cities. Americans elected a black president. Twice. Americans have striven, through affirmative action and many other programs, to hasten the participation of blacks in colleges and jobs. Politicians on both sides of the aisle, including President Trump, pushed through criminal justice reform, to try to mitigate the harm done to African Americans, in particular, through the enforcement of drug laws.
Polls show racial attitudes over the last half century have changed dramatically for the better.
According to the Brookings Institute, 60% of employed black women worked as domestic servants in 1940; today the number is 2.2%, while 60% hold white-collar jobs.
In 1958, 44% of whites said they would move if a black family moved in next door. Today, the figure is 1%.
In 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, 18% of whites said they had a friend who was black. Today, 86% say they do; 87% of blacks say they have white friends.
I believe that those who shared the Reverend King’s desire for a better America did indeed help create a more perfect union.
Is America perfect now? Of course not. There is an enormous amount of work to be done. Urban crime, broken families and bad public schools remain a national disgrace. They do immense damage to the African American community. And, of course, given human nature, some people will always regard other races as inferior to their own. Government officials will always abuse power.
But are Americans truly irredeemable racists, as the propagandists insist? Is the path to a better America really through destruction of our Constitution and through violence, hatred, and bigotry in the form of identity politics?
The Reverend King did not seek to tear down American ideals. Like Abraham Lincoln — also assassinated — he courageously challenged Americans to live up to those ideals. Both men regarded black Americans not as helpless victims, but as people fully capable of participating in a society based on opportunity for all.
The Reverend King also understood the political power of love and of people working together. Against enormous pressure to argue otherwise, he grasped, like Jesus, the practical reality that hatred breeds hatred. Watch him here:
“I would like 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.e., supports violence], I am going to stand up as a lone voice and say this is the wrong way,” he said.
“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,” the Reverend King said.
While he expected vigorous protest, “my hope is that it will be non-violent. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.”
You will not hear such quotes much these days, because they do not support the ideological narrative that America and its constitutional form of government are inherently evil, and that violence, hatred and destruction are the only valid responses.
The only moral path to a better America is to build up, in the spirit of love; not to tear down, in the spirit of hatred.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)