Justice  /  Speech

The Crisis in America’s Cities

Martin Luther King Jr. on what sparked the violent urban riots of the “long hot summer” of 1967.

A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo:

"If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness."

The policy makers of the white society have caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison.

Let us say it boldly that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.

After establishing the general cause of outbursts, it is possible to identify five immediate causes:

  1. The white backlash.
  2. Unemployment.
  3. General discriminatory practices.
  4. War.
  5. Features peculiar to big cities: crime, family problems, and intensive migration.

I place the white backlash first because the outbursts have an emotional content that is a reaction to the insults and depravity of the white backlash. Many people point out that there have been years of some progress, and this is true. Yet equally true is the fact of an animalistic reaction by a significant section of the white population. In the midst of progress Negroes were being murdered in the South and cynical white jurors automatically freed the accused. In Chicago last year thousands of vicious white hoodlums with murder in their hearts bombarded Negroes with rocks and bottles because they dared to ask to be neighbors. The white backlash told Negroes that there were limits to their progress; that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor. The white backlash said Negroes should not confuse improvements with equality. True equality, it said, will be resisted to the death. The so-called riots in a distorted and hysterical form were a Negro response that said inequality will now be resisted to the death.