Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "The Other America"
In 1967, as the United States was at war in Vietnam, American Civil Rights activists were fighting their own battles at home. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the war in his April 4, 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." Less than two weeks later, he shifted his focus to the fight for racial justice with a speech titled "The Other America," delivered at Stanford University.
"There are so many problems facing our nation and our world, that one could just take off anywhere," he said at the top of the speech. "But I'd like to use a subject from which to speak this afternoon, the Other America."
He goes on to describe the two Americas that exist alongside one another. The first is "the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits[...]And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity."
The second America, he explains, is the place where the nation's citizens live in poverty. He mentions the several races occupying this America, including poor white people, before characterizing the Black American experience: "The American Negro finds himself living in a triple ghetto. A ghetto of race, a ghetto of poverty, a ghetto of human misery."
Many of the MLK quotes that are part of school curriculums today deal with hope and racial unity, but "The Other America" notably justifies the anger felt in Black America at this time. The Civil Rights leader is famous for leading nonviolent protests, and while he does use this speech to condemn violence, he also sympathizes with rioters and explains their motives.
So these conditions, existence of widespread poverty, slums, and of tragic conniptions in schools and other areas of life, all of these things have brought about a great deal of despair, and a great deal of desperation. A great deal of disappointment and even bitterness in the Negro communities. And today all of our cities confront huge problems. All of our cities are potentially powder kegs as a result of the continued existence of these conditions. Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots.
Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I'm still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few 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, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
After first giving the speech at Stanford, MLK would continue delivering versions of "The Other America" throughout 1967 and 1968. He gave the speech in front of the Local 1199 union in New York City on March 10, 1968—less than a month before his assassination on April 4, 1968.