It was inevitable that George Floyd’s death would spark protests against police brutality and that mendacity would characterize the attendant media coverage. True to form, the press affected dismay when the demonstrations devolved into violence, yet reported the riots with obvious approbation. The most obscene example of this was the widespread use, in headlines and ledes, of an out-of-context Martin Luther King quote suggesting that the civil rights leader would have condoned the mayhem. USA Today, for example, ran a feature story bearing the following title: “ ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’: MLK’s powerful quote resonates amid George Floyd protests.”
This grotesque misrepresentation of Dr. King’s views is only possible by cynically cherry-picking eight words from a 1966 interview during which he repeatedly emphasized that violence was counterproductive to the progress of the civil rights movement. Mike Wallace interviewed him for “CBS Reports” on Sept. 27, 1966, and the primary topic of discussion involved divisions within the movement concerning overall strategy. The myth that King had somehow endorsed violence went mainstream in 2013, when “60 Minutes Rewind” posted a clip from the Wallace interview and irresponsibly titled it using the same out-of-context quote. The interview transcript begins with this unambiguous statement:
KING: I will never change in my basic idea that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the Negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral.
It’s pretty difficult to find anything resembling support for street violence or riots in this statement, but a subsequent question about the “Black Power” movement persuaded Dr. King to explain the impetus of the numerous 1966 riots. He cited the growing frustration caused by the absence of progress on basic civil rights for black people in general. King obviously understood that much of the community was growing very impatient. He also knew that most owners of property burned and businesses ruined during riots were owned by black people. This is still true. Thus, he continued to denounce the riots as self-defeating and socially destructive and insisted that nonviolence was the best course to follow:
MIKE WALLACE: There’s an increasingly vocal minority who disagree totally with your tactics, Dr. King.
KING: There’s no doubt about that. I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don’t think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. 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. (Emphasis added.)
The media have dishonestly plucked the highlighted fragment from this 175-word answer to create the false impression that Dr. King somehow viewed violence as a legitimate weapon in the fight for justice. In reality, there is no honest way to arrive at this conclusion when those eight words are read in their proper context. Yet USA Today is by no means alone in its misuse of this fragment. CNN uses the same eight words for the title of a Fareed Zakaria segment that begins with a deceptively edited clip from King’s 1967 speech, “The Other America,” in which he discusses riots much as he did on CBS. In order to launch the segment with the magic words, however, CNN edited out most of the speech, including the following:
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.
USA Today, CBS, and CNN have lot of company. The Week, for example, ran yet another trite effusion titled “ ‘A riot is the language of the unheard,’ Martin Luther King Jr. explained 53 years ago.” This nonsense, like the rest, ignores the facts and includes standard fictions to once again conjure up an image of Dr. King as an advocate of violence in the cause of social justice. Among those offended by this mendacious exploitation of King’s words to validate violence is his niece, Alveda King. She writes, “I am saddened yet undaunted that a quote from my Uncle Martin is being taken out of context.… Some people are calling this an endorsement of violence, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
She continues, “Martin Luther King preached love, not hate; peace, not violence; universal brotherhood, not racism.” This MLK isn’t easy to square with the figure now being portrayed by the media, but the Fourth Estate can’t be bothered with facts right now. It’s an election year. They have to stoke as much racial tension as possible.