It is increasingly clear in retrospect that Martin Luther King Jr. was the most significant American historical figure of the second half of the 20th century, just as Franklin Roosevelt was of the century’s first half. King taught us, as a nation, many things. One was, as you may have been reminded in recent days, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
And let’s be clear about what that means: When millions are unheard, that is a societal failure. It is a failure of leadership. It is also a failure of journalism, because one of our principal roles is not just to listen, but to hear, and then to relate what we hear to those who themselves need to listen, and to hear. This means you, and all of your fellow citizens.
Our own half-century is only in middle age, but it feels right now as if it may be hanging in the balance. We need, among many other things, to hear better as journalists. And, if I may say so, you need to hear better as Americans, and ultimately as voters.
Moreover, you need to listen to protesters, but by no means only to them.
This week we begin publishing Unheard, a project more than a year in the making that embodies the very best of this aspiration. Unheard records, reflects and relates the stories of survivors of sexual assault in Alaska, many of them Alaska Natives, and is published in proud partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, whose work as a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network earned the newsroom this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The series is the result of almost 300 survivors of sexual assault telling us their stories. Reporting involved an extraordinary effort from more than a dozen people on our staffs working together across thousands of miles. As the editors from our two organizations note in their introduction to these accounts, these are stories of deep despair, but almost nearly as many of recovery and resilience. They are powerfully told — the result of a truly collaborative process with the survivors — and powerfully photographed in a place and manner of their choosing.
Of course, we also need to hear, and you need to listen to, what is happening to black Americans, whom, as we have reported, the coronavirus is hitting especially hard; for whom health care disparities are prevalent and devastating, as we reported again last week; for whom the economic crisis is especially painful because of the historic legacy of racist policies that prevented the accumulation of any meaningful savings; and even for whom, as we reported this past weekend, the scourge of opioids is being exacerbated.
Addressing these issues is a matter of urgency. As King also said in his 1967 speech on the “language of the unheard,” “our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
This country remains almost two-thirds white. Many white people (certainly including me) have led lives of great privilege and opportunity. Such privilege should not be a badge of shame, but it should impart responsibility. This is an especially good moment, I think, for many of us so situated to reflect on how well we are meeting that responsibility.
It is also true, however, that tens of millions of white people in America are hardly privileged by many critical measures, from falling life expectancy to family income and education. We need to hear them as well, and you need to listen also to them. ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis is especially effective, I think, in conveying some of their stories. If you haven’t already, read this recent article of his about how some of Jared Kushner’s company’s tenants are doing these days, which includes a moving profile of white family that is currently suffering.
At the same time, this is a good time to reread MacGillis’ important piece from 15 months ago on the aftermath of his hometown of Baltimore in the wake of the riot of 2015 following the killing of Freddie Gray.
This coming Saturday will mark the anniversary of the death of Robert Kennedy. Speaking just nine weeks before he was himself gunned down, and just hours after the murder of King, Kennedy memorably expressed his anguish, but he also declared his faith:
“We've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”
I shared that faith in the dark year of 1968, and I continue to share it in this dark year. As King concluded his remarks on the unheard, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
It is with that aim that we will continue our own work, from Alaska to Baltimore, from Minneapolis and across the land we all share.