“Language of the Unheard”: How Dr. King Really Felt About Rioting (Editorial)

Less than six months after the events of Ferguson, the crisis in Baltimore is once again forcing Americans to confront the uncomfortable issue of racial tension in our modern society.

As with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Freddie Gray – whose spinal cord was almost completely severed while he was in the custody of Baltimore PD — sparked outrage and city-wide protests.

And as with the shooting of Michael Brown, media coverage has focused on the small minority of people who are rioting and causing destruction to the city. I could easily write about this media distortion, but I already discussed that issue when I wrote about Michael Brown (see “Thought #1”), so I want to focus on something else this time.

One of the more heartening images from the protests in Baltimore

One of the more heartening images from the protests in Baltimore (Photo: Bishop Cromartie via CNN)

As I’ve watched people react to the riots in Baltimore on social media, one thing I’ve noticed is the widespread use of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes promoting non-violence. Basically, people are denouncing the rioters by saying, ‘What would Dr. King think?’

Well, King actually answered that question, in a speech he gave just weeks before his assassination:

“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.”

Dr. King delivered his remarks to an audience of 2,700 at a high school gymnasium in the predominately white Grosse Pointe suburbs outside of Detroit. A few years earlier, King had led the Detroit Walk to Freedom – a civil rights march that attracted approximately 125,000 demonstrators.

King’s Grosse Pointe speech, entitled “The Other America”, described how half of America reaped the benefits of the country’s wealth and opportunity, while the other half was systematically marginalized and oppressed. Reading his words, one can’t help but note how true they ring today:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Grosse Point High School on March 14, 1968 (Courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society)

March 14, 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Grosse Point High School in Michigan (Courtesy of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society)

“Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.

But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches.

Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grade level. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. Probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. There are so many other people in the other America who can never make ends meet because their incomes are far too low if they have incomes, and their jobs are so devoid of quality.”

If you’re looking for an example of the racial divide in American society today, you don’t have to look any further than this Racial Dot Map of Baltimore. Black people are represented by green dots, white people are blue, Asians are red and Hispanics are yellow.

baltimore racial dot map

Courtesy of the Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia

In a recent article about inequality in Baltimore, The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingram also pointed out that the vast majority of Baltimore’s 15,928 vacant buildings are in the city’s poor black neighborhoods. Ingram reports,

“Statistics collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance show that in Sandtown, the neighborhood Freddie Gray called home, an astonishing 34 percent of residential properties are vacant or abandoned.”

But the current mayhem in Baltimore is about more than just economic inequality. It’s also about the city’s recent history of police violence.

Last September, the Baltimore Sun’s Mark Puente published an in-depth investigative report about police brutality in the city. Puente writes,

“Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson… Such beatings, in which the victims are most often African-Americans, carry a hefty cost. They can poison relationships between police and the community, limiting cooperation in the fight against crime, the mayor and police officials say.”

According to the Sun’s investigation, Baltimore paid out approximately $5.7 million in police brutality settlements between 2011 and 2014 – and that doesn’t include the $5.8 million the city had to spend on legal fees.

Puente’s investigation shows that the relationship between Baltimore’s police and its poor black residents was already a tinderbox; the death of Freddie Gray was simply the match that sparked the flames.

Some of the victims of police brutality in Baltimore (Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun)

Some of the victims of police brutality in Baltimore (Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun)

Let’s be clear: I am in no way condoning those who are rioting and resorting to violence in Baltimore.

And neither was Dr. King: “If every Negro in America turns their back on non-violence, I’m going to stand up as the lone voice and say this is the wrong way… Riots are self defeating and socially destructive,” he said during an interview with CBS News’ Mike Wallace in 1966.

But even in that interview, King made a point to stress that rioting was, “the language of the unheard.” During his speech at Grosse Pointe High two years later, Dr. King expanded on this crucial argument:

“And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear 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.”

You can read the full text of Dr. King’s Grosse Pointe speech here.

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