This phrase “has become a touchstone for those who seek to understand why those individuals have taken to the streets: ‘A riot,’ King said, ‘is the language of the unheard,” this was printed five years ago in Time Magazine. Today, this phrase is again a touchstone and is repeated in social media discourse.
Quotes are great tools that are best understood and applied when considered in their original full context. Accurate meaning of quotes is found when we review who constructed the message, from what total content is was pulled, and awareness of the time when and environment where the message was conceived. Before you read this article, ask yourself – What does “a riot is the language of the unheard” suggest to you? (We will ask this again at the end of this article.)
Our “who” is Martin Luther King, Jr.. (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968). Dr. King attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen; he received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott. In December, 1955, he led the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. He was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure. At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated. (summarized from his bio with the Nobel Peace Prize)
What (full context)
Martin Luther King, Jr. made this statement not alone, but in the context of a much longer and more complex message. The quote can be found inside a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. named “The Other America,” which he delivered twice.
When did the statement originate
Between 1966 to 1968, war, racism, and poverty had become the dominant issues confronting America. The United States was away at war in Vietnam, and at home American Civil Rights activists were fighting racism.
Time Magazine reported, “The quote is often traced to 1968, but it was actually a frequent rhetorical turn for King, appearing years earlier than that.”
Where did the statement originate
There are three locations for this quote.
Sept. 27, 1966 CBS interview: In 1966, King was questioned by CBS’ Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes Overtime.” In that interview, King said, ‘I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard… See the video of this interview and read the full transcript here (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mlk-a-riot-is-the-language-of-the-unheard/)
April 14, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the university community at Stanford University. On May 29 2020, The Stanford Office of the Provost released a statement entitled “Confronting racial injustice” included a longer version of that quote noted it came from a speech named “The Other America”. The Stanford Office of the Provost then said: “The violence we witness today arises from our painful legacy of racial injustice embedded in our most vital social structures. It is not an issue that impacts our Black community alone. It impacts all of us. Indeed, it is an assault on our shared humanity.” The original invitation to speak was written on November 15, 1966, by the Associated Students of Stanford University, the Political Union Board. The invitation letter stated that Stanford students wanted to understand the significance and were “vitally concerned with the direction taken by the civil rights movement in the United States and the leadership asserted by” Dr. King, saying that his “leadership and vocabulary have defined the goals and tactics of the civil rights and peace movements.”
March 14, 1968, at Grosse Pointe South High School, in southeastern Michigan,which was a nearly all-white Detroit suburb (according to michiganradio.org). Three weeks before he was assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech (again) entitled “The Other America,” in the school gym to a capacity crowd of 2,700, according to a Grosse Pointe News article. Dr. King was invited to speak by the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council, a group of concerned citizens who worked for things like fair housing. “Tensions were incredibly high, and security was tight. While driving to the school, the Grosse Pointe Farms police chief sat on King’s lap to protect him. Most [attendees were] eager to hear King speak. But also among them were more than 100 protesters. It was an organized effort on the part of a local right-wing group called Breakthrough. They heckled King, interrupting him a number of times, especially as he spoke about his opposition to the war in Vietnam.” (michiganradio.org)
Context is key – what was said before and after this quote greatly impacts the message.
The next two passages take the context of this quote into consideration. In summary, “What you probably won’t hear, is the question he asked that followed: ‘What is it that America has failed to hear?” And, “Understanding the psychological roots of rioting is not the same as saying that it is justified or should be condoned.”
You’re going to hear this quote quite a bit in the next few days…: ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ … What you probably won’t hear, is the question he asked that followed: ‘What is it that America has failed to hear?’ … You’re going to hear the condemnations of looters, and we should condemn them. There are always going to be those that take advantage of situations like this, but this minority should not be allowed to tarnish the very real anger and pain this community, and others across America, feel. …I’m going to paraphrase Dr. King again: Riots don’t appear out of thin air. The seeds were planted long ago. Nurtured … by a society that seemingly pays lip service to justice and equality. We speak out, but when we do, we’re told that we’re too loud. If we want results, we should speak in a more peaceful manner. When we march peacefully, we are told to not be an inconvenience. And when we take a knee, we are told that’s too much. Too disrespectful. All the while the communities remain unheard, forced to live with their fears. Until they become too much to bear.Reese Waters (WUSA 9), Randolph Terrance Sturdivant, Published: May 29, 2020. “WASHINGTON
“The Psychology of Rioting: The Language of the Unheard” (May 30, 2020) by Joe Pierre M.D.
“To understand the psychology of protests fragmenting into riots, we should first go back and watch or read Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech, “The Other America.” … He reminds us that if we are to condemn rioting for the destructive, unbridled, and opportunistic aggression that it is, or, more importantly, to try to prevent it from happening in the first place, we have to first understand its cause. … Understanding the psychological roots of rioting is not the same as saying that it is justified or should be condoned. It isn’t and shouldn’t be. … If we don’t address underlying systemic racism, … violence will continue in response to violence. … Although it has been argued that non-violent protesting, rioting, and even looting are points on a continuum of political revolt, often aimless violence and looting represents the opportunistic exploitation of chaos and lawlessness. …But regardless of the perpetrators, violence and destruction are ultimately counterproductive and often harm the very communities that need healing.”Joseph M. Pierre, M.D. is a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Acting Chief of Mental Health Community Care Systems at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
Linking Martin Luther King Jr. to an unwavering advocacy for a nonviolent civil rights movement is strongly demonstrated by his 1964 The Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he said:
“…beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”
“I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice….After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression… nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation… man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” He ended the speech with this line, “beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.“Martin Luther King Jr. – Acceptance Speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Thu. 4 Jun 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/26142-martin-luther-king-jr-acceptance-speech-1964/>
After reading this article, now what does “a riot is the language of the unheard” suggest to you?
What is your take away?
Below are longer excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches:
Sept. 27, 1966 CBS interview: Dr. King was questioned by CBS’ Mike Wallace” In that interview, King said, ‘I think that 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’.
“The Other America” speech from April 14, 1967, at Stanford.
So these conditions, existence of widespread poverty, slums, and of tragic conniptions in schools and other areas of life, all of these things have brought about a great deal of despair, and a great deal of desperation. A great deal of disappointment and even bitterness in the Negro communities. And today all of our cities confront huge problems. All of our cities are potentially powder kegs as a result of the continued existence of these conditions. Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots.
Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. 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. But in the final analysis, 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 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. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention…
Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where black men and white men share power together to build a new and a great nation.
In a real sense, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
To hear or read the full speech – check these links:
Video of speech and documents featuring invitation to King, as well as the Stanford Daily articles from that day: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/news/50-years-ago-martin-luther-king-jr-speaks-stanford-university
Full Transcript: https://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm
“The Other America” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Grosse Pointe High School – March 14, 1968 full transcript in PDF:http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf
“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.”
Excerpt from speech at Grosse Pointe High School (now Grosse Pointe South) on March 14, 1968. https://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/index.htm
To look over other quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. about this nonviolence message can be found here: /mlk.wsu.edu/about-dr-king/famous-quotes/