As a kind of meditation in the wake of hearing too many complaints about Ferguson protestors “destroying property,” I here type out segments of my marked-up copy of chapter 4 of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper and Row, 1967, pp. 55-7). If you have the large James Washington volume, see the same material there, in James Washington, editor, Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 648-50.
I want simply to record King’s words here because even though King himself wrote at another point that the “misguided riots” (Detroit, Newark and elsewhere) were a feature that transformed his “dream” into a “nightmare” (The Trumpet of Conscience, 76) – even in spite of that belief, King knew better than to moralize about attacks on property – as we hear from Obama and many others over Ferguson today
The words below are from The Trumpet of Conscience (56-7). Read the whole chapter 4 for context, if you like. These remarks were part of King’s radio addresses to Canada in 1967. I know there are significant differences between King’s time and situation and ours today. Nevertheless, King’s points should be remembered. King wrote this about the riots:
“Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much-publicized “death toll” that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, an unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target – property.
I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons – who hold both sacrosanct. My views are 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.
The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.
If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negroe’s attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy. A curious proof of the symbolic aspect of the looting for some who took part in it is the fact that, after the riots, police received hundreds of calls from Negroes trying to return merchandise they had taken. Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents. Possession, afterward, was secondary.
A deeper level of hostility came out in arson, which was far more dangerous than the looting. But it, too, was a demonstration and a warning. It was directed against symbols of exploitation, and it was designed to express the depth of anger in the community.”
And . . . I cannot help but end with these his words, from later in the same chapter:
“The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize 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” (59-60)