Civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. was known for promoting peaceful protest as the best way to gain equality for black Americans. But he was also accused by the U.S. government and others of being “dangerous” because they believed he incited violence with his speech.
One line from King that his critics six decades ago, and also supporters of the George Floyd riots in 2020, would point to, is from a 1966 interview in which he said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
But, when you look at the context of that remark, it was never an endorsement of rioting from King. It was an explanation for why rioting sometimes happens.
Still, as Vox’s German Lopez observed in 2018, “Back in the 1950s and 1960s, King was repeatedly derided by his opponents for inciting violence. The FBI even investigated him, fearing his potential impact on US society. The White House, meanwhile, seriously feared that the March on Washington would lead to riots and violence — something that seems completely absurd today.”
Since the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill in 2021, Democrats and others now often accuse Republicans of inciting violence by expressing right-leaning views that deviate from their own.
When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi was assaulted in October, many Democrats pounced.
“The attack on Speaker Pelosi’s family was not a ‘random act,’” claimed Rep. Ilhan Omar. “It was the logical result of a Republican Party that has targeted the speaker and other prominent women in public life for over a decade now, and then gaslights us when we call out its danger.”
When Omar criticizes Donald Trump, is she setting him up to become a target of violence? Or expressing basic political speech as an elected official?
Rep. Eric Swalwell went even further. “We must draw the straight lines that connect violent political rhetoric and violent acts,” Swalwell insisted.
Naming Paul Pelosi’s alleged attacker, Swalwell declared, “The Pelosi assailant’s Facebook page looks identical to the Facebook pages of Trump, [Georgia Rep. Marjorie] Taylor Greene, and [Colorado Rep. Lauren] Boebert. All three of them have glorified violence and [David] Depape acted on it.”
Should these Republican members of Congress not have a voice? Should someone not be able to peruse them on Facebook? Where does Swalwell recommend his preferred lines be drawn?
This is complete BS.
I don’t care if you’re MAGA, #TheResistance, the Tea Party, Antifa, Donald Trump, or Ilhan Omar—citizens of any ideological persuasion have the right to their basic political speech. They should be encouraged, as Americans, to never fear speaking their mind. Arguing that such speech might indirectly cause violence—and it sometimes does—so it should not be tolerated, is an affront to the core purpose of free speech and is shockingly unAmerican.
And yet you hear politicians and others say this on a regular basis.
After Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, William Sullivan, circulated a memo that read, “I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands heads and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” (Emphasis added.)
So yes, one of the largest and yet most peaceful protests in U.S. history was seen at the time by a powerful government official as a threat to public safety and “national security.” We’re witnessing similar attitudes today.
I thought January 6th was an embarrassing day for my country. I was not happy about the violent protests throughout the country over racial injustice in the chaotic summer of 2020. There have to be better ways.
But I do not want dissident views on the 2020 election, pro-life views, pro-Second Amendment beliefs, or any other right-leaning speech to be muted in the name of public safety. I do not want the views of Black Lives Matter, critical law enforcement views, pro-choice beliefs, or any other speech that is typically considered left-leaning to be prevented either.
Actual violence should always be condemned. Most people should understand that exercising speech also comes with responsibility and they should expect to be held accountable in the public square for their words.
But Americans exercising their First Amendment rights should never be stopped or even discouraged with the justification that allowing debate might cause violence.
Martin Luther King Jr. never threatened public safety and we honor him today. He was only a threat to those who didn’t want the world to change.