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For Martin Luther King Jr., Nonviolent Protest Never Meant ‘Wait and See’

January 12, 2018 in History

By April Reign

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.leading marchers as they begin the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march from Brown's Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

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On January 15, the United States celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 50 years on from his assassination in 1968. The intention behind the holiday is to commemorate this great man’s life, and recommit to his call to fight for justice everywhere. Many will spend Monday as a day of service to others, staying true to his words that “everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.”

The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are well-known and often quoted. Most remember the speech he gave at the March on Washington in 1963, when he uttered those iconic words of American aspiration: “I have a dream…”. He is also remembered for his urge to use nonviolence as the most effective form of protest (even when violence was threatened against him and his family), and his strong desire to bring about equality and civil rights for African Americans during the civil-rights movement.

However, less attention is paid to the words he spoke in the latter part of his life. In the year he died, he had just launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which appealed to impoverished people of all races, and sought to address the issues of unemployment, housing shortages and the impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans, white and black. By then, King’s language had become stronger and more assertive, urging direct action to bring about change. For King had never meant nonviolent protest to mean “wait and see.” In fact, he made very clear that rebellions have their place in America. Just a few weeks before he died, in a packed high school gym just outside Detroit, constantly interrupted by a rowdy right-wing crowd picketing his appearance, King had these radical words to say:

“…it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to …read more


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