UNITED STATES—On Monday, May 25, George Floyd, 46, was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 44. According to video evidence, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 21 seconds. George Floyd’s death  was caught on camera. The days following the release of the footage saw  protests and riots. In response to the recent happenings, Martin Luther King III published on Twitter: “As my father explained during his lifetime, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. waves at the crowd of a peaceful protest. Photo Courtesy of Mads Molina on Twitter

Fifty-two years after his assassination, echoes of the fight Martin Luther King, Jr. waged for equality are being brought up again. Social media has seen reference to lines such as: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice”, and calling up the “I Have A Dream” speech. King’s work of advocacy for equality still echoes today on the banners of protesters currently marching the street. 

During the course of his lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for peace as a means to achieve equality. His campaigns were planned based on this principle, and he taught it through his leadership at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SLCL). Sermons published from his church services call for peaceful action against inequality. His conviction that non-violence was the means to justice is something he championed from the start of his activism career until his death.  

Early Life Through The Church

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He references in his autobiography having been raised by two religious parents. His mother was “a very devout person with a deep commitment to the Christian faith.” The thing he admired most of his father was his “genuine Christian character.” MLK claimed in his autobiography to remember joining the church at age 5, though he says he mostly did it to keep up with his sister, who joined just before him. King stated the church was “like a second home” to him, and that it is probably where he learned to get speak to people the way he did during his career.

According to King. Jr, his father was also an activist for civil rights, having been president of the NAACP in Atlanta. His father had been involved with the organization since his birth. King mentioned two instances in which he remembered how his father didn’t stand for racial injustice. One involved being refused service at a shoe store and the other a cop calling his father “boy.” In both instances, his father used his words to make a stand. 

In 1944, when King Jr. was 14, he gave a speech at an oratorical contest. On the verge of the U.S. joining World War II, the young MLK said America could not have democracy while a majority lives in ignorance. He decreed that malnourishment and germs obey no Jim Crow laws, and prosperity cannot be achieved with one group so far behind, and people cannot be truly Christian without “brotherly love and the Golden Rule.” He ended with the following:

“So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.” 

This was the first time he spoke out in public against the injustices he had seen in his community.

Demonstrations and Peaceful Protests

Martin Luther King, Jr. in the crowd at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church when he first became famous for his involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the winter of 1955. He had been active in civil rights before though, as evidenced by his NAACP membership. He emerged as a leader of the movement for his role in the organization of the boycott.

The boycott continued in January 1956. On the night of January 30, 1956, King’s home was bombed while his wife, Coretta, and his young daughter were home. The explosion shattered windows and blasted a hole in the porch. Ed Nixon’s home was bombed two days later on February 1. Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to be involved in Civil Rights regardless.

In April 1963, MLK and the SCLC joined the existing Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to take action against Birmingham’s segregation system. The goal was to put pressure on Alabama businesses during the Easter season because it was one of the busiest seasons of the year. The campaign began on April 3, 1963, with a series of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts of merchants, all under the flag of nonviolent protest. There were no reported outbreaks of violence. A court injunction was given to the protesters on April 10, 1963, but there was a severe lack of funds to bail out potential arrested protesters. Organizations usually reserved funds to bail out members arrested during demonstrations.

The leaders of the effort decided to continue protesting anyway. MLK faced the decision of letting himself be arrested with the possibility of not being bailed out. In the end, he decided to let it happen. On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King was arrested without a fight and kept in solitary confinement.

Speeches and Rhetoric

Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. The engraved line from his “I Have A Dream” speech reads: “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s reputation as an orator also began with the Montgomery Boycott, for speaking to the African American public through speeches on the topic of Civil Rights. These came through his organized events, as well as his church sermons. Speeches became a common way for him to use rhetoric and words as a way to spread his message of peace, equality, and non-violence.

He was highly active in marches such as the Selma march in 1965, and the March on Washington D.C. in 1963. The latter is where he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, he described hope for an America where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  The repetition of “I have a dream” at the end of the speech made a big impact on the audiences, as well as the media. It is a speech being referenced again during the current protests and movements. 

A 1967 speech by King at Stanford University has become increasingly resonant. The “Other America”‘ speech was recently shared on Twitter by the King Center, the organization set up by Coretta Scott King to honor her late husband. 

The quote being called up today by King’s son was out taken from the following excerpt of the speech:

“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”

King emphasized his support for nonviolent tactics in the “struggle for freedom and justice” and expressed his disapproval for riots. He referred to them as “socially destructive” earlier in the same speech.

Criticisms of MLK

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering a speech to an interracial audience. Photo courtesy of Cassio Lobato on Twitter

During his confinement, MLK penned what is known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This was meant to be a response to the criticism of the movement eight clergymen published in the Birmingham News. They called the movement of direct action “unwise and untimely.”  In his response, King defends his reasons for intervention in Birmingham, saying he wouldn’t be there if he didn’t see injustice, and that his very confinement was proof of that injustice. His requests to call his wife, who had just given birth to their fourth child, were famously denied. His wife phoned the Kennedys, and bail money was then made available. King was let out of jail on April 20.  

MLK received criticism from within the civil rights movement itself. Some members of the SCLC questioned his use of advocacy to expand on issues other than civil rights. King told reporters in 1963, ” We are not asking for an end to segregation. That’s a matter for the legislature and the courts…All we are seeking is justice and fair treatment in riding the buses.”  

Malcolm X greatly criticized MLK as being just for show, calling the March on Washington a “farce.” It was also pointed out that the non-violence tactics King preferred incited white-on-black violence for lack of a response threat.

End of His Career

Pin from the Poor People’s Campaign, which was still held after King’s death.

In a recorded meeting to the SCLC in 1968, Martin Luther King described the Poor People’s Campaign. He claimed to be seeking “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other.”

The plan involved an initial group of 2,000 poor people to descend on Washington, D.C., southern states, and northern cities. They would meet with government officials to “demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.” 

However, at 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead. He had been standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Escaped fugitive James Earl Ray confessed to the crime. Court records show he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Racial violence erupted after the assassination. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute estimates there were “more than 40 deaths nationwide and extensive property damage in over 100 American cities.”

Relevance Today

A protestor holds a sign with King’s image saying “I have the same dream.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric was always one of equality and non-violence. He did not believe in the inherent superiority of any race, but rather in the value of “content of character.”  He did not condone forms of violent protest, calling riots “socially destructive.” 

The equality King dreamed of is still being fought for today. Police brutality, disproportionate socio-economic conditions, and judgment based on the color of skin are still being called out. 

His book “Strength to Love” was published in 1963, a time where civil unrest mirrored the posters seen on the streets today.  Amongst his published recorded sermons stands the following quote: 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”