Three years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the Daily Beast called it an Often Ignored Masterpiece.
“If you watch a tape of the proceedings, you will be struck by the speaker’s somber reserve. There are no verbal crescendos; there is very little emotion and no drama at all. The template for most of King’s speeches was the sermon, but this is not a sermon. Quiet and reflective, it is more like a prayer.”
King won the award after the March on Washington, after several successful actions such as the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. Yet he wondered whether he was worthy of the designation At his acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway on December 10 of that year, he mused:
I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death…
Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.
He decided to accept the honor, but not for himself.
After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
In recent years, I have debated people who believe that King’s tactics are “old-fashioned” and “out of date. I disagree. Here are a couple of paragraphs for those of us who have been feeling distraught over the events of the past few months should read.
I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him… I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality… I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered build up… “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that We Shall overcome!
That we STILL have so far to go is difficult to accept, and sometimes we feel as though we are moving backward. And yet we rise.