CLAIM: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
VERDICT: True. However, Dr. King remained committed to non-violent protest and opposed to riots.
In the wake of the riots and looting that broke out with protests over the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis, Minnesota, police last month, supporters of the cause have cited Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote on riots.
For example, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison told Fox News Sunday last week: “Martin Luther King [Jr.] said many years ago that riot is the way that the unheard get heard.”
Ellison added, however — correctly — that Dr. King “didn’t condone it, but he said to the nation — as a person who always protested peacefully — that don’t just dismiss that and ignore it, and relegate it to just criminality and bad behavior.”
The quote comes from a speech that Dr. King delivered at Grosse Point High School in Michigan in March 1968, just weeks before he was assassinated.
King said that he could not condemn riots without condemning the “intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” But he made clear that he did not support rioting.
The full quote, in context (emphasis added):
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 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.
The term “militant” has lately been used as a euphemism for “terrorist,” so the idea of “militant” non-violent action may be difficult to understand today. What Dr. King meant was that even radical change had to be pursued non-violently.
Dr. King’s principle of non-violence drew from Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of “satyagraha,” which relied on non-violence to appeal to the common humanity of the person against whom the protest was directed.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.