Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Quote of the Day (Martin Luther King Jr., Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize)

“Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Nobel Lecture,” December 11, 1964

The decision of the Nobel Peace Prize committee to present this year’s award to Barack Obama has already excited so much comment (including from me) that almost anything else at this point is superfluous. But it is instructive to go back on this date in 1964, when the committee announced that the award would go to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Though, at age 39, Dr. King was the youngest recipient to date of the award, few, if any, people would have argued that his award was “premature.” After all, he had already spent nearly nine years—since the Montgomery bus boycott—leading the civil rights revolution in the U.S.

In this address, King outlined the practice of nonviolence, particularly how it might be applied to three major problems facing the world at the time: racial prejudice, poverty, and war.

It surely must have bothered the Peace Prize Committee that it had never presented the award to Mahatma Gandhi when it had the chance. If so, they made one of their best choices ever in giving it to the most visible contemporary exemplar of the Indian leader’s method of passive resistance: Dr. King. (Indeed, King paid tribute in the address to Gandhi and the intellectual father of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau.)

The circumstances surrounding King’s award were extraordinary, not the least of which being the vociferous reaction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. J. Edgar Hoover’s animus against King reached its most sinister turn at this point, as a tape was compiled consisting of snippets of the bureau’s electronic surveillance capturing his liaisons from the prior two years. The tape was then mailed to King’s home, along with an anonymous letter hinting, in thinly veiled terms, what he must do before accepting the award:

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy frauddulent [sic] self is bared to the nation.”

I was reminded of this when I came to the extraordinary moment in the peroration to King’s speech in which he spoke of “the nagging feeling that they [peace activists] can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life.” Surely, King felt this himself, as he contemplated the blackmail threat perpetrated by Hoover’s lackeys at the FBI. Yet he continued to shoulder the burdens of his struggle, through unbelievable discouragement and terror, to his martyrdom.

That level of commitment is extraordinary, but no less than the burdens of the Presidency, an office that provides the greatest opportunities to advance the causes of peace and human rights, along with the greatest temptations to corrode them.

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