The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has been remembered, venerated and perhaps even idolized as a champion of non-violent civil disobedience. He and Mahatma Gandhi are often compared favorably in terms of the movements they led, the work they achieved, and even in the fact that they ultimately became martyrs to their cause at an assassin’s hand. Their deaths did not slow down the pace at which change was coming as their killers hoped. If anything they ACCELERATED change as those in power feared the reprisals of an already unhappy populace who had just seen one of their leaders shot down in cold blood. Indeed the riots following MLK’s death were a very foreseeable consequence of James Earl Ray’s actions.
Some have come to believe over the years that followed that King would have been saddened or heartbroken to see people rioting after his death, seeing his movement marred by violence, seeing people respond to the hatred which caused him to be slain with even more hate. People love to quote from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but less remembered is a speech he gave at Stanford University now known as “The Other America.” His views on riots were more nuanced than you may have thought for a man who is known for non-violent protests, and although he did condemn violence, he spoke about it as a symptom of the disease of racism which should be heeded as a warning to cure our collective ills. Riots were in fact the direct consequence of what the good Reverend called a “triple ghetto” for its black citizens: “A ghetto of race, a ghetto of poverty, a ghetto of human misery.”
“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. 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.”
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As we remember and celebrate the work that Dr. King did to overcome the evils that plagued our nation then and still do today, we must also remember that to condemn those who protest or riot is to also do him a disservice. The Reverend was a man of peace, but he was also a man of the people, and as surely as he embraced non-violence he also understood how racism made so many people so angry about the disenfranchisement and poverty they experienced. He did not ignore this anger nor did he condemn it – he sought only to remind us that this anger would not go away just because you could call in the police or the National Guard to quell the riots. That just pushes the anger back down beneath the surface, waiting to boil up and explode all over again. His lesson to us is to do more than pay lip service to change. We as a society all have to address hatred and racism in meaningful ways that make a direct impact on the day to day lives of those suffering from its effects. If not we should become used to riots – they are the inevitable outcome of opportunity denied.