Fifty years ago today, at the age of thirty-five, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, becoming at the time the youngest person to have received the award in history. Now, as civic unrest continues to flare up over the unjust deaths of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and too many others, it seems clear that Dr. King’s message of hope and resilience are as necessary now as ever before. “I refuse to accept the view,” King said in that acceptance speech, “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.” Later in the speech, he continued:
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 can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “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.
This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.
That speech is collected in The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr., an anthology of Dr. King’s most inspirational and transformative speeches and sermons. Given his prominence in history, it is perhaps not surprising that people have been returning to King’s words, and recontextualizing them to our moment in history, when we again find ourselves at a moment of cultural reckoning. King, after all, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize during a prolonged period of crisis in American identity. A year earlier, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. And, though Lyndon Johnson had succeeded in finally pushing through Kennedy’s filibustered Civil Rights Bill, black Americans were rioting in protest against injustice in cities across the nation. What King, in his Nobel Lecture, called “the deep rumbling of discontent” can just as easily apply to today’s protests in many of the same cities, spiraling out from their epicenter in Ferguson, Missouri:
The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses, rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom, in one majestic chorus the rising masses singing, in the words of our freedom song, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.” All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land. They are awake and moving toward their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village street, on the docks, in the houses, among the students, in the churches, and at political meetings. Historic movement was for several centuries that of the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in “conquest” of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism, is at an end. East is meeting West. The earth is being redistributed. Yes, we are “shifting our basic outlooks.”
These developments should not surprise any student of history. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.
In the wake of the latest protests following the Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, some have talked about the need for a new civil rights movement. Though we’ve come far, we still look to King for guidance because we sense his impassioned words can provide both the balm and the courage to end the cycle of racist violence, delivering America more fully to a place of freedom, true equality, and coexistence. “Our end,” King said, “is a community at peace with itself.” As long as Dr. King’s words continue to resonate with those who’ve felt the sting of racial injustice, they’ll remain vital tools in the struggle for human rights:
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
In a real sense nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag that I spoke of earlier as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.
I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.
The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms: we will take direct action against injustice despite the failure of governmental and other official agencies to act first. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to truth as we see it.
The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr. is edited and introduced by Clayborne Carson, professor of history and founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. It is available as an e-book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes.