Monday, October 14, 2013
On October 14, 1964, while in the middle of a routine physical exam, Martin Luther King, Jr. learned that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Although just 35 years-old, King had already spent nine years helping to organize and lead a movement to achieve civil rights. He had risen to prominence in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott after he spoke to large crowd just a few days following the arrest of Rosa Parks. To a church crowd that overflowed into the streets, King said:
And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water (and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I want to say that in all of our actions, we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. And don't let anybody frighten you. We are not afraid of what we are doing, because we are doing it within the law. There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we are wrong when we protest. We reserve that right. When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power, it was nothing wrong with labor getting together and organizing and protesting for its rights. We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.
The crowd responded, and the boycott lasted 13 months. On December 20, 1956, the Montgomery buses were desegregated, and a national movement was born.
Nine years later, on December, 10, 1964, King stood before the Nobel committee as the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement. His fame had grown dramatically after his speech in Montgomery, but the wisdom and virtue of his cause and the grace of his demeanor had not yet achieved acceptance by a plurality of the American public. A Gallup poll taken shortly before he won the prize showed that only 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of King, a number that held steady until 1966, when his popularity dropped to just 33 percent (compared against an unfavorable rating of 63 percent).
History appears to have accepted King’s greatness. In 2011, a Gallup poll found that 94 percent of the American people reported favorable views of King.
But, today’s reverence for King is a product of history, not of his time. Today we see his successes, but King saw mostly obstacles. King recognized the challenges ahead, and he used his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to continue his pursuit for justice. King said:
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. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
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.The full text of King’s speech can be found here, and the video here.