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What Martin Luther King Jr Really Thought About Riots

Joe Biden is trying to use Martin Luther King’s legacy to make the case for a law-and-order crackdown on protests. But King drew a distinction between violence against people and violence against property — and he viewed riots as the product of an unjust social order.

Martin Luther King Jr in 1964. Noord-Hollands Archief / Fotoburo de Boer

In a new campaign ad, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says that “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. And those who do it should be prosecuted.” Last week, in a major campaign address in Pittsburgh, Biden hammered on the same point, declaring that looting is “wrong in every way . . . It makes things worse across the board, not better. No, it’s not what Dr King or John Lewis taught. And it must end.”

Martin Luther King Jr III offered a different view in a tweet earlier this year: “As my father explained during his lifetime, a riot is the language of the unheard.” A number of people felt they knew King’s father well enough to respond, tweeting that King père would never “condone the riots.” “Violence is not what he stood for.” After all, one tweeter noted, “he never once rioted.”

So what did King really think about riots? Is Biden on solid ground in invoking the great civil rights leader to have his Sister Souljah moment?

The short answer: absolutely not. While King never viewed rioting as the most effective form of political protest — disciplined, mass resistance was clearly superior, in his eyes — he also never denounced riots as immoral or engaged in the kind of law-and-order rhetoric Biden is now deploying.

Let’s start with the quote that King’s son tweeted out: “a riot is the language of the unheard.” King made the comment in a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace. He continued: “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.”

The previous year, in a statement to the press about the Watts Rebellion, King argued that people placed too much emphasis on “racial significance” in their assessments of riots. In his view, riots were “the rumblings of discontent from the ‘have nots’ within the midst of an affluent society.” They were expressions of the despair that afflicts people when they see no other way out of their economic dilemma, expressions of doubt about the willingness of the white community and the black middle class to change the situation. Before anyone rioted in Watts, King noted, the state of California had nixed a fair housing bill. The “have nots” had been deserted in their struggle for justice and felt they must resort to the methods that gained the most attention.

For King, it was crucial to distinguish between violence against property and violence against people. In a 1967 speech entitled “Nonviolence and Social Change,” he noted that the riots of that year had directed their ire at property rather than people, and that the vast majority of rioters did not attack anyone. Where injuries did occur, they were inflicted by the military and the police against rioters.

In another speech that year, at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, King distinguished between “insurrections,” “riots,” and “looting.” Though they may engage in “violent acts,” unlike insurrectionists, rioters were not seeking to seize territory or institutions. “Looting” — one type of rioting — was a form of social protest that served many functions. It was mainly intended to “shock” the American community. Looting enabled the deprived to take hold of consumer goods with “the ease” of those with money in their purses. And, “knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.” King noted that in Detroit, “whites and Negroes looted in unity.” Looting was a kind of physical critique of capitalism. In attacking property together, they were attacking the white capitalist power structure that was oppressing them.

While those who held both property and persons sacrosanct may have winced at King’s distinction, he explained that his views were not so rigid. “A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.” With this, King concluded that rioting which targets property and not people maintains a core commitment to the moral principle of “nonviolence toward persons.”

King worried that defenders of the status quo would fail to acknowledge the moral restraint of the rioters and resist their demands on the grounds that rioting “must not be rewarded.” Meanwhile, the underlying structural issues that had sparked the riots in the first place would continue to fester.

What was needed, King argued, was “a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

Biden is right that we should look to Martin Luther King in this moment of rebellion and upheaval and injustice. More than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs. Millions are facing eviction. Police violence is out of control.

But if Biden actually examined King’s politics — not the conservative, bowdlerized version, but the genuine, radical King — he might not like what he finds.