Riot apologists end arguments by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “Riots are the voice of the unheard.” But what did King mean?
King used the phrase on different occasions after riots broke out in American cities in 1965. King wanted to extend the struggle for equality beyond the southern states and needed to reach a new demographic that denounced non-violence.
Also in 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sought to break away from traditional civil rights tactics. Eventually Stokely Carmichael emerged as SNCC’s new chairman chanting a new slogan: Black Power
In 1966, during a CBS interview, King was questioned about the rejection of non-violence. King admitted there was a vocal minority, but pointed out, most were on his side. King said, “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.”
King understood the language of civil disobedience which declared segregation immoral and broke its laws to be heard. King didn’t chastise he sympathized with the outcry against immoral conditions. But it was also the only option for acceptance outside the Deep South.