Martin Luther King’s gifts were manifest. He was an inspired leader, a galvanizing orator, and a brilliant polemicist and prose writer. But more than anything, he knew how to rise to an occasion.
On December 10, 1964, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew the world was watching. He knew that he was the public face of the American civil rights movement, and that everything he said would be weighed and judged, sometimes harshly. Put in that position, almost any of us would tremble. But King just stepped up to the podium and delivered one of the finest speeches of his life.
“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,” he began. “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.”
King’s prose, like Lincoln’s, is plain and straightforward, and yet supple enough to allow him to range from a whisper to thunder in the space of a few lines.
King was already famous as an orator, having delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before hundreds of thousands of people a year earlier (though hindsight has elevated that speech to a level of recognition that it did not receive in many news accounts of the 1963 March on Washington—the Washington Post story, for example, ignored it almost completely, mentioning only one line in the next day’s coverage). In the space of a few weeks, and forever thereafter, King was known almost exclusively for the “Dream” speech.
That speech, as good as it was, was also typical. As an American orator, King had no rivals in his lifetime. He delivered rousing speeches time and again, to memorable effect. And people came to expect it, which may explain why the Nobel speech unfortunately gets less attention.
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.
Was he nervous? Surely he was. But he had faced tougher crowds than the Nobel audience. No, I think his muted delivery was deliberate. I think he wanted to draw people’s attention away from himself and put it on the substance of his text. But as a result, the address is almost too quiet. Because it is not the rousing King we expect, we are disappointed.
That’s a shame, because if you ignore the performance and simply read the text, you get a completely different impression. On the page, this Nobel address is one of the most moving things King ever wrote. Indeed, when you read it, you comprehend how, almost inevitably, his oratorical gifts eclipsed his skill as a writer. But a great writer he certainly was.
In that paragraph quoted above, his prose is specific (22 million), concrete (fire hoses, snarling dogs), and rhetorically rhythmic (I am mindful … I am mindful … I am mindful …). In 175 well-chosen words, he sums up the trials and the grit and bravery of the civil rights movement. As openings go, it’s hard to beat.
Then he does something a little daring: He calls the whole procedure into question, and doing that he gets your absolute attention.
“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.”
Has he come all this way to reject the prize? Where is he going with this? Wherever it is, you’re going with him.
“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.”
Here and elsewhere in this relatively brief speech (1,150 words), King deflects attention away from himself: “this award which I receive on behalf of that movement …” The sincerity with which he makes himself one among many diffuses any possibility of false modesty. But lest we miss that point, he drives it home with some plainspoken imagery just a few lines later: “Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible—the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.”
The little miracle of King’s writing lies in the way he so easily blends homemade metaphor (the flight crew), biblical imagery (the lion and the lamb), and poetry (near the very end he references a line from Keats). His prose, like Lincoln’s, is plain and straightforward, and yet supple enough to allow him to range from a whisper to thunder in the space of a few lines.
At one point he echoes another Nobel Prize speech, when he says, “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 idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround 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.’
This is very close to the language of King’s fellow southerner William Faulkner, whose 1950 Nobel speech includes the sentiment, “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
“I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
It would not surprise me to find out that King knew Faulkner’s speech. But part of me thinks it just as likely that he did not, that it was simply inevitable that two Southern geniuses, one black and one white, both troubled by the centuries old tragedy of their region (and both terribly aware of the threat of nuclear annihilation), could manage to wind up nursing the same hope against hope that things could get better, must get better.
There is very little that seems dated about King’s speech, even 50 years later. He does make one reference to King Lutuli, who, if you’re like me, you won’t recognize. Albert Lutuli was a president of the African National Congress who was jailed and persecuted by the apartheid government of South Africa. In 1960, he was the first African to receive the peace prize, and like King, he believed strongly in non-violence.
Otherwise, the speech seems eerily contemporary. True, it is grounded in the realities of a fight against a sort of blatant segregation that no longer exists. But its hope for a better future and its expressed faith in God and the children of God is unassailable. He practically dares you to be cynical or pessimistic, because he has rejected those things, and if he can, then so can anyone in his audience.
Is it a perfect speech? Not quite. King never learned when to use that and when to use which. Otherwise, it is hard to fault. He somehow manages to balance faith, realism, optimism, the news of the day, and the fate of the human race. And he did it in prose a child could understand and a poet would envy. With the eyes of the world upon him, he met the moment and mastered it.