Can a Speech Stop a Riot Today?

“injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation”

Official committee report on the causes of the Harlem Riot — 1935

On April 4, 1969, Martin Luther King was shot in his neck, severing his juggler vein, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The time of this event was approximately 6:01 pm, CST. One hour later, he was officially pronounced dead at St Joseph’s Hospital. One hour after that, Bobby Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck in an Indianapolis ghetto, and announced to the thousands of people in attendance, “I have some very sad news for all of you, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” The crowd gasped.

What’s wrong with that picture?

The crowed was clearly taken by surprise as can be seen and heard in the video of that speech. Some in the crowed knew that King was shot and fewer knew that he was pronounced dead. Kennedy’s speech is credited with saving Indianapolis from the violent riots that would soon follow as word of King’s death spread across the country.

But what if that happened today? Long before Kennedy landed in Indianapolis the crowd would have known of King’s assassination. It would have happened almost instantly. According to witnesses, the crowd already included people who were there ready for a fight. Imagine a ready-made crowd of thousands of people receiving the information about King’s death. By the time Kennedy arrived, rioting would have possibly already started and he would not have been able to enter the area at all.

As it turns out, the speech Bobby Kennedy made after announcing King’s death, had helped calm the crowd and insured them that at least the wheels of equality and justice were still spinning and a touch of hope can go a long way. The speech was less than 5 minutes long but is considered one of the greatest speeches ever made. Near the end of his speech to the mostly Black crowd, Kennedy read a poem by the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

In the age of instant information, the stillness, and attentiveness of that moment would have never happened. The information would have already been digested and spun, and the opinions of a few would have been the news of millions. There would not be time for deep thought, contemplation, or even plain old thinking for yourself. There would have been no waiting for the trusted news programs from NBC, ABC, and CBS. Instead, the news would be coming from social media Websites with more than a sprinkle of lies and fake news designed to stir the crowds into a frenzy of violence.

The trusted news of that day did not stop riots from breaking out all over the rest of the country before or after the King assassination. But the conditions of those places did not match the conditions in Indianapolis that evening. Those cities did not have Bobby Kennedy talking directly to them before the anger built up to mob mentality.

Today we do have instant news, but it seems that instant lies travel at a much faster rate. Maybe this is a bad comparison, speaking about what would happen today. This is because leaders like King do not exist today. But we don’t need a leader like King to riot. O.J. Simpson, a person who long abandoned the Black community, was welcomed back into the Black community when fear of a conviction of murder moved the police to send over 100 police officers on horseback to surround the Los Angeles courthouse on the day of the verdict. So, the death of a leader is not the only reason to riot. And we have more than enough excuses for rioting because of the murder of Black men by law enforcement officials all across the country.

The major difference is that news travels much faster and that makes the spontaneity of rioting even more dangerous and unpredictable. I cannot imagine anyone getting in front of the news and quelling a possible riot by speaking personally and directly to the people that are potential rioters. Even the notion of making that speech on the back of a flatbed truck seems like a time so far in the past it is downright pre-historic. But it is too bad that the causes of those riots in the past are very modern and up-to-date.

After the Harlem Riot of 1935, historian E. Franklin Frazier headed a commission to find out the causes for rioting, and they concluded “economic and social forces created a state of emotional tension which sought release upon the slightest provocation.” Other causes cited for the 1935 riot report included: “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation.” Not much has changed since 1935, Those words are just as accurate and viable today as they were during the Great Depression when that riot happened.

In our political climate, today a speech is more likely to start a riot then to stop a riot. We have a President of the United States that consistently makes divisive remarks that works-up his manic followers. My only surprise is that his speeches have not caused a major riot yet. But he seems to be working on it.

Where are the Martin Luther Kings and Bobby Kennedys of today? Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but I believe if Bobby Kennedy would not have been assassinated himself, we would (as a country) be in a better place. We would still have to grapple with many of the same problems, both economic, and racial. Those problems would not have disappeared. However, I’m convinced we would have not ended up with a Trump. When I look back at Bobby Kennedy standing on the back of a flatbed truck and speaking directly to the Black community with such thoughtful and elegant words, I’m reminded of how far we have fallen from our moral perch as a nation.



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Thomas Holt Russell

Thomas Holt Russell


Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. My writing is a living organism.