What would MLK say about Ferguson?


I have been intensely engaged in a few Facebook conversations regarding the Ferguson shooting of the unarmed black man, Michael Brown. All in all, the conversations tend to be productive. But many whites (and in some cases non whites) are quick to condemn the rioters. I hear comments to the effect, “Why can’t blacks just get over it?” With a black President, they say, we have proof that the playing field is equal. I posted a picture of Malcolm X, and I made the comment that “Those who are oppressed and denied justice have the right to take power and freedom by any means necessary.” It prompted a lot of tense comments, as you can imagine, most of which disagreed with me.

One person posted a lengthy quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “The Other America.” Turns out MLK wasn’t all that far away from Malcolm X.

I consider Martin Luther King, Jr. to be a fellow subversive mystic, in the Jesus tradition. He is also a figure that many mainstream white Americans admire. However, in his speech, “The Other America” (1968) King talked about the African-American riots of the late 1960s, and there are two things that might surprise most white people.

1) The unemployment rate among African-Americans is actually higher today — around 11% — than the statistics that King quotes in his speech in 1968 — 8.8%.

2) While reaffirming his personal commitment to nonviolence, King does not come forward with an outright condemnation of the rioters.

In his speech, King also mentions the fact that “discouraged workers” (those not actively seeking jobs) are not counted toward the official unemployment numbers. In fact, while the U.S. Labor census tracks “discouraged worker” statistics, they do not separate them out based on race. So, the actual number of unemployed African-Americans remains a mystery. We can probably guess that it is about double, which puts the real number over 20%.

Obviously, many conditions have improved since 1968, but my guess is that most of white America would be surprised to learn that some social conditions for African-Americans (like unemployment) are actually worse today than in King’s day. I wish we could hear the wisdom of King, to hear him talk about how much of his dream has come true and what work remains to be done, but we can glean insights by reading and reflecting on the words found in his speeches. We can listen to King, and we can listen to the voices of those who suffer in our own day.

“In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grade level. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. Probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. There are so many other people in the other America who can never make ends meet because their incomes are far too low if they have incomes, and their jobs are so devoid of quality.  And so in this other America, unemployment is a reality and under-employment is a reality….

“All too often when there is mass unemployment in the black community, it’s referred to as a social problem and when there is mass unemployment in the white community, it’s referred to as a depression. But there is no basic difference. The fact is, that the negro faces a literal depression all over the U.S.  The unemployment rate on the basis of statistics from the labor department is about 8.8 per cent in the black community. But these statistics only take under consideration individuals who were once in the labor market, or individuals who go to employment offices to seek employment. But they do not take under consideration the thousands of people who have given up, who have lost motivation, the thousands of people who have had so many doors closed in their faces that they feel defeated and they no longer go out and look for jobs, the thousands who’ve come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. These people are considered the discouraged and when you add the discouraged to the individuals who can’t be calculated through statistics in the unemployment category, the unemployment rate in the negro community probably goes to 16 or 17 percent.  And among black youth, it is in some communities as high as 40 and 45 percent. But the problem of unemployment is not the only problem. There is the problem of under-employment, and there are thousands and thousand, I would say millions of people in the negro community who are poverty stricken – not because they are not working but because they receive wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the main stream of the economic life of our nation. Most of the poverty stricken people of America are persons who are working every day and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work. So the vast majority of negroes in America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. This has caused a great deal of bitterness. It has caused a great deal of agony. It has caused ache and anguish. It has caused great despair, and we have seen the angered expressions of this despair and this bitterness in the violent rebellions that have taken place in cities all over our country. Now I think my views on non-violence are pretty generally known. I still believe that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the negro in his struggle for justice and freedom in the U.S.

“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But 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 hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen 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 and humanity.”
(emphasis mine)

See the Washington Post “Black unemployment is always worse”

See MLK, Jr. Speech The Other America

My Facebook Post

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

6 thoughts on “What would MLK say about Ferguson?”

  1. The riots have to do with an unarmed man being shot and the fact that the officer was not found to be in the wrong. That is why the riots began after the verdict was given, not before. You seem to have written an article about the frustrations of those living in poverty and imply that this had something to do with the riots. Two different issues. Connecting them doesn’t help and actually may detract. I remind you that the riots took place after the verdict was given. If the riots were about poverty, they could have happened at any time.


    1. Well, you could be right, but I think that the riots have to do with both facts – the lack of an indictment as well as a history of poverty….and I would also add that as a people, African-Americans have been denied justice. So really that is three interrelated issues. I would suggest that these three issues are combined: economic frustration, a historical denial of justice, and a black man whose shooter was not indicted depite facts that suggested that he should have been. The American experience for African-Americans has been one of oppression and suppression. When denied justice (as seems to have been the case with the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown), it is natural to connect this with a long history of suppression. I certainly would if I were black.


      1. Well perhaps you are right in assuming three factors, but those are just your assumptions. I think it is important that those who chose to riot get there own voice and that others don’t assume secondary motivations which may or may not be the case and change their voice. It takes away from the issue they are voicing and shines the light on other issues. A major weakness of you post is that you assume that all those who rioted were poverty stricken. There may well have been middle income and perhaps even upper income blacks who were outraged by the verdict and rioted. When you make it about poverty you have eliminated their voice. The riots came after the verdict and assuming to know secondary issues may detract.


        1. The point of my original post was simply to urge us to listen: to listen to King and to listen to the voices of those in Feruson and all historically oppressed people groups. I can only speculate from the voices that I hear and continue to listen and to learn. It seems to me that many African-Americans, like King, connect these greater social issues with specific instances (like what happened in Ferguson). That’s what I hear, but I continue to listen and to support those working to create a more just and equitable world.


  2. Fair enough and I appreciate your end game. Again, generally agree with all the pieces of the article, just wondering if making some assumptions about the deeper motivations for the riot (poverty for example) and putting it all in one article doesn’t detract. In the end it is just some feedback. If I were black, educated, and middle income I could image myself just as upset about the verdict as those who are underprivileged in poverty. Thanks for creating dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

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