“There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of individuals within that society who feel that they have no stake in it…”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing the Universalist Unitarian Assembly. The year was 1966, late spring, in the slow interstitium between Selma’s success with the Voting Rights Act and the SCLC’s next project with the Chicago Freedom Movement. King’s tone at the lectern was pensive. In a speech known now as “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” he presented in guarded tones his philosophy of nonviolence as a vehicle for social change as the superior option to strategies prescribing violence as revolution. The speech marked a slight inflection of Kingian philosophy in the increasingly tense environment of the late 60s. Less optimistic, less morally rigid, and less certain than the oft-quoted pre-VRA body of work, it reads as King trying to convince himself of the certitude of his path as much as anyone in that crowd:
People talk about the long hot summer that’s ahead. I always say that I don’t think we have to have a long, hot violent summer. I certainly don’t want to see it because I hate violence and I don’t think it solves any problems. I think we can offset the long, hot, violent summer with the long, hot, non-violent summer. People are huddled in ghettos, living in the most crowded and depressing conditions. They need some outlet; some way to express their legitimate discontent. What is a better way than to provide non-violent channels through which they can do it? If this isn’t provided they are going to find it through more irrational, misguided means. So the non-violent movement has a job to do, in providing the non-violent channels through which those who are caught in these conditions can express their discontent and frustration. Now let me say that I’m still convinced that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity. tweet
Half a decade of upheaval. Five straight long, hot summers starting with the deaths of four little girls in Selma and culminating with the seething, white hot wave of riots in 1968 after King’s assassination. Violence, both in the overwhelming systemic forces of racist oppression that created the situation and in the Black riots of frustration and sorrow, was woven into the fabric of the era. It bled into the anti-Vietnam movement and into the burgeoning gay liberation movement at places like Kent State and in Stonewall, respectively. The sheer scale of rioting and the asymmetrical violence that it existed in response to-the numbers of children, protesters, notable leaders, and demi-celebs bombed, beaten and gunned down-would be unfathomable if exported to the present-day.
King was deeply aware. His speeches and actions from Selma onward are deep acknowledgements of an aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that oft goes overlooked in the shallow contemporary quote-mining reading of history: that it was as much defined by sometimes-violent upheavals as it was by nonviolent protests. King may well have had control of the moral center and proved effective, but his “The Other America” speech, the penultimate circuit speech he would give before his death, indicated a growing defensiveness and a framework for understanding violence, without condoning it:
Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear 3 of 8 that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen 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 and humanity. tweet
Perhaps it was Malcolm X that understood best the somewhat symbiotic relationship that radical nonviolence had with radical violence. “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,” he said after a speech while King was in jail in Selma. “I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” The constant threat of riots was a part of the leverage that gave King such wide latitude to operate, and the fear of Black frustration spilling over sent many White leaders to listen to the SCLC’s proposals.
Half a century after that half-decade, the world watched in Baltimore (as in Ferguson and other cities before it) erupted in rage following the mysterious death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police. As his spine was shattered, so was the tense municipal facade of peacefulness, of compliance with the rule of police. But the protests, despite numerous attempts by onlookers to classify them as war zones, have been largely absent of the kinds of violence that followed events such as the King riots in 1968 that razed entire streets in Baltimore and destroyed the entirety of the U Street neighborhood in D.C. By many accounts other than CNN’s, the protests throughout the week have been largely peaceful, well-organized, and constructive. If anything, small-scale incidents of looting (the same couple of stores looped hours and hours on cable news), rock-throwing, and vandalism early on resembled less historical “riots” and more the events often found at the periphery of King’s own marches, where even his influence and the iron organizing will of the SCLC could not always keep rage from manifesting as rage often does. In fire.
Now, American culture and media writ large use a facile facsimile of Quotable King to shame any protest not deemed docile enough, often to almost comedic effect. “What would MLK say?”
The damage done is so deep that the contextless quotations of Dr. King rankle many Black millennials as deeply as the constant mentions of “post-race” in the early years of the Obama Presidency. While King was a revolutionary, his philosophies (by design) often hewed the closest to the most palatable social compromises for people in power. As other revolutionaries less beholden to nonviolence were demonized over time, so was King’s message allowed to dominate and become the only morally accepted means of Black movement expression, at the expense of those revolutionaries’ ideals. And then King’s message itself was whitewashed over the decades and sucked free of inconvenient notions of meaningful non-compliance. What would Stokely say? What would El-Hajj say? What might Ella Baker want? What might King himself actually say if he had been allowed to keep evolving and hadn’t been assassinated?
History has a way with words. Here, I’d define that voice loosely as the media, and it might be that the voice telling the story is just as important as the actual story in historical struggles. Were the events leading to the Revolutionary War a sustained–and often violent–riot or noble resistance against tyranny? Was the Civil Rights Movement mostly nonviolent or mostly violent? Could either have been both? Perhaps revolutionary violence and nonviolence are fingers on the same hand of oppressed frustration; perhaps King was right in both his moral condemnation of retaliatory violence and his understanding recognition of its inevitability?
So we focus on Baltimore. On Freddie Gray and on dozens of other slain Black women and men. A city and a populace grieving and aggrieved; a community that has been denied a voice for a generation; a people that lives under the documented tyranny of an occupying police force; pressed charges passing for simulacra of justice. Any accounts of car windows being broken or drug stores burning seem quaint compared to decades of documented state violence and murder. But of course, the paintbrush of false equivalence cannot allow journalists or cultural critics any room to operate beyond blind and asymmetrical condemnation. They are prisoners to a false self-serving ideology; one where Blacks must respond to overwhelming, sustained, generational violence and bloodshed with infinite reserves of patience or be cast as monsters deserving of such violence.
Asking what King might think about modern events can be instructive with enough information. We can get the broad strokes: the denunciation of tyranny and violence, the respect for the community, and the deep empathy for Black lives gnashed in the maw of injustice. Asking can help us better understand our own convictions and the nuances of present situations. It can help us contextualize our own movements and personal dilemmas in understanding the internal conflicts of a man most often portrayed as an unbreakable paragon of confidence. But what it cannot do now is actually lead us.
Quotations cannot be the sole moral backbone of any movement, and ours must change and adapt just as the man and the Movement he represented did. So what would King say about the character of the protests in Baltimore? Would he be busy condemning? Or would he be busy spreading his message through empathy and real action?