Monday, January 21, 2008

King on Meet the Press (1966): Facing Hard Media Questions on Turning the Movement North

Throughout its existence, the Civil Rights Movement faced down insinuations that it deserved the persecution it got for nonviolent disobedience. It is one thing for movement participants to understand and to accept the risk of their actions of precipitating social change. It is quite another for the media to sit on the sidelines of a just cause and blame the participants for the abuse that was already latent and waiting for them.

The following exchange is an excerpt from a 1966 segment of Meet the Press (published in James M. Washington's A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.) in which MLK was grilled about whether his movement tactics caused hatred, violence, discord, and harm, especially as the movement went north to Chicago. The fact that the reporters kept asking the same type of blaming question repeatedly indicates to me that they were not taking Dr. King's claims to accountability seriously:
[Lawrence] Spivak: Dr. King, I'd like to come back to you now. The superintendent of police of Chicago ... said the other day that your civil right tactics have aroused hatred among Chicago white residents and are hampering the Negro's progress. What's your answer to that?

King: Well, my answer is that this is totally erroneous. Our civil rights efforts have not aroused hatred, they have revealed hatred that already existed. There is no doubt about the fact that there are many latent hostilities existing within certain white groups in the North, and what has happened now is that these latent hostilities have come out in the open .... there is no doubt about the fact that there is hate here. We didn't created it, we merely exposed it and brought it to the surface.

Spivak: Dr. King, I'm sure you either heard or read President Johnson's speech yesterday when he warned that violence and discord would destroy Negroes' hopes for racial progress. Now isn't it time to stop demonstrations that create violence and discord?

King: Well, I absolutely disagree with that, and I hope the president didn't mean to equate nonviolent demonstrations with a riot, and I think it is time for this country to see the distinction between the two .... I think demonstrations must continue, but I think riots must end because they are socially disruptive ....

[Richard] Valeriani: Dr. King, to follow up Mr. Spivak's question, recent polls suggest that in terms of national reaction, demonstrations are now counter-productive. By continuing them don't you run the risk of doing more harm than good?

King: Again I contend that we are not doing more harm than good in demonstrations .... I have never felt that demonstrations could actually solve the problem. They call attention to the problem, they dramatize the existence of social ills that could be very easily ignored if you did not have demonstrations, and I think the initial reaction to demonstrations is always negative .... Now that we have started on a massive scale in the North it is only natural that we would have this reaction.

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