Martin Luther King on How Whites Should Respond to Rioting
Rioting is counterproductive, but whites of good will must not allow themselves to be distracted by it
The latest murder (as the autopsy makes clear) of an African American man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer has spawned days of nationwide protests. Those protests reflect rage not just at that particular incident, but at longstanding white indifference to the unequal treatment African Americans have suffered in this country throughout its history.
Unfortunately, some of those protests have been marred by rioting and violence. The predictable response to those events is that some whites will focus more on the civil disorder they see on their television screens than on the conditions that brought it about. There’s a real danger that the message the protests are meant to convey will be lost, submerged under visceral reactions to images of burning buildings, looting, and seemingly out-of-control mobs.
That must not happen. If the message of the protests goes unheeded, the pain we as a nation have suffered since George Floyd’s death will have been wasted, and the pressure will continue to build toward more, and perhaps greater, explosions in the future.
According to Dr. Martin Luther King, it’s up to whites of good will to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What Dr. King wrote a half century ago is still very relevant today
In 1967 Martin Luther King was concerned about the state of the Civil Rights movement. Just two years earlier the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 seemed to herald a new era of progress toward full equality for African Americans. But then there had been a backlash among whites, and progress seemed to have stalled, if not regressed.
That state of affairs prompted Dr. King to write a book he hoped would help whites and blacks understand what would be required of both groups to overcome the inertia, and outright resistance, that were being manifested toward further efforts to address systemic obstacles to equal treatment for all Americans.
That book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, was published in June of 1967. In it Dr. King commented specifically on the impact the Watts riots of 1965, and other instances of violent civil unrest, had had on the nation’s progress toward racial equality. In light of the rioting that has marred the current mostly peaceful nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd, I believe Dr. King’s 1967 assessment remains highly relevant today.
Here are some excerpts of what Dr. King had to say:
Dr. Martin Luther King on the impact of riots, and how whites should respond
In several Northern and Western cities, most tragically in Watts, young Negroes had exploded in violence. In an irrational burst of rage they had sought to say something, but the flames had blackened both themselves and their oppressors…
It cannot be taken for granted that Negroes will adhere to nonviolence under any and all conditions.
When there is rocklike intransigence or sophisticated manipulation that mocks the empty-handed petitioner, rage replaces reason.
Nonviolence is a powerful demand for reason and justice. If it is rudely rebuked, it is not transformed into resignation and passivity…
It is understandable that the white community should fear the outbreak of riots.
They are indefensible as weapons of struggle, and Negroes must sympathize with whites who feel menaced by them. Indeed, Negroes are themselves no less menaced, and those living in the ghetto always suffer most directly from the destructive turbulence of a riot.
Yet the average white person also has a responsibility.
He has to resist the impulse to seize upon the rioter as the exclusive villain. He has to rise up with indignation against his own municipal, state and national governments to demand that the necessary reforms be instituted which alone will protect him.
If he reserves his resentment only for the Negro, he will be the victim by allowing those who have the greatest culpability to evade responsibility. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. There is no other answer.
Rioting and violence are wrong and counterproductive, but understandable
Dr. King is clear that violence and rioting are not only wrong, but they are highly counterproductive for the struggle to achieve full equality of rights and treatment for African Americans. When they occur, there is an inevitable backlash among whites, and that backlash actually diminishes the chances for achieving progress toward the changes that are so desperately needed.
But when the larger society continues to ignore, or just pay lip service to, the often murderous mistreatment the nation’s African American community suffers on a daily basis, “an irrational burst of rage” will sooner or later occur.
Whites who desire a peaceful country cannot afford to focus exclusively on the disorder that has accompanied some of the current protests. If they do, they will be helping to ensure more rioting in the future, not less. Why is that the case? Dr. King makes the answer to that question very clear:
“Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. There is no other answer.”