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Chapter 24: The Nobel Peace Prize

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.

  • December 10, 1964 King receives Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo
  • December 11 Delivers Nobel Lecture at University of Oslo
  • January 27, 1965 Integrated dinner in Atlanta honors King

After many months of exhausting activity in the civil rights movement, I had reluctantly checked into the hospital for a rest and complete physical check-up. The following morning I was awakened by a telephone call from my wife. She had received a call from a New York television network. It had been announced in Oslo, Norway, by the Norwegian Parliament that I was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace for 1964.

My eyes were hardly open, and I could not be sure whether this was merely a dream or if I was hearing correctly. I was stunned at first. I had known of my nomination for this honor, but in the rush of responsibilities of a movement such as ours, one does not have time to contemplate honors, so I was quite unprepared psychologically.

But then I realized that this was no mere recognition of the contribution of one man on the stage of history. It was a testimony to the magnificent drama of the civil rights movement and the thousands of actors who had played their roles extremely well. In truth, it is these "noble" people who had won this Nobel Prize.

A reward for the ground crew

Many friends, members of my congregation, staff members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-and just people in various cities-asked me the same question: "How does it feel to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the world's most coveted award? What does it mean to you?" 

I felt so humbly grateful to have been selected for this distinguished honor that it was hard to form in my mind a lucid manner of expressing "what it meant to me." Sitting in my church study, plunged into one of those rare periods of solitude and contemplation, I found the answer. 

I recalled that, some years ago, I was seated in a huge jet at O'Hare Field in Chicago. In a matter of moments, the mighty plane was to take off for Los Angeles. From the speaker we heard the announcement that there would be a delay in departure. There was some mechanical difficulty which would be repaired within a brief time. Looking out of the window, I saw half a dozen men approaching the plane. They were dressed in dirty, greasy overalls. They assembled around the plane and began to work. Someone told me this was the ground crew. 

All during that flight, I am sure that there were some on the plane who were grateful for our competent pilot. Others were aware that there was an able co-pilot. The stewardesses were charming and gracious. I am sure that many of the passengers were conscious of the pilot, the co-pilot, and the stewardesses. But, in my mind, first and foremost, was the memory of the ground crew. 

There are many wonderful pilots today, charting the sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth course of human progress; pilots like Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and A. Philip Randolph. And yet, if it were not for the ground crew, the struggle for human dignity and social justice would not be in orbit. 

That is why I thought of the Nobel Peace Prize as a prize, a reward, for the ground crew: fifty thousand Negro people in Montgomery, Alabama, who came to discover that it is better to walk in dignity than to ride in buses; the students all over this nation who, in sitting down in restaurants and department stores were actually standing up for the true American Dream; the Freedom Riders who knew that this nation cannot hope to conquer outer space until the hearts of its citizens have won inner peace; Medgar Evers, slain; the three Mississippi martyrs, slain; Americans, colored and white, who marched on Washington. 

In the final analysis, it must be said that this Nobel Prize was won by a movement of great people, whose discipline, wise restraint, and majestic courage has led them down a nonviolent course in seeking to establish a reign of justice and a rule of love across this nation of ours: Herbert Lee, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, and the thousands of children in Birmingham, Albany, St. Augustine, and Savannah who had accepted physical blows and jail and had discovered that the power of the soul is greater than the might of violence. These unknown thousands had given this movement the international acclaim, which we received from the Norwegian Parliament. 

Members of the ground crew would not win the Nobel Peace Prize. Their names would not go down in history. They were unknown soldiers in the second great American Revolution. Yet, when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we are now living-men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization because of the ground crew which made possible the jet flight to the clear skies of brotherhood. On December 10 in Oslo, I would receive-for the ground crew-a significant symbol, which was not for me, really. 

I was greatly humbled, yet tremendously gratified by the visit to Oslo for the Nobel Prize. The response to our cause in London, Stockholm, and Paris, as well as in Oslo, was far beyond even my imagination. These great world capitals looked upon racism in this nation with horror and revulsion, but also with a certain amount of hope that America could solve this problem and point the way to the rest of the world. I assured them that this was our intention in the civil rights movement and among those forces within the churches and the labor and intellectual communities who have
pledged themselves to this challenge.

The Nobel Prize for Peace placed a new dimension in the civil rights struggle. It reminded us graphically that the tide of world opinion was in our favor. Though people of color are a minority here in America, there are billions of colored people who look to the United States and to her Negro population to demonstrate that color is no obstacle or burden in the modern world.

The nations of Northern Europe had proudly aligned themselves with our struggle and challenged the myths of race the world over. This was the promise of a strong international alliance for peace and brotherhood in the world. Northern Europe, Africa, and Latin America all indicated a willingness to confront the problem of racism in the world. This was the starting point of a peaceful world. The Negro had to look abroad also. Poverty and hunger were not peculiar to Harlem and the Mississippi Delta. India, Mexico, the Congo, and many other nations faced essentially the same problems that we faced.

From the moment it was announced that the Norwegian Parliament had chosen me as winner of the 1964 Prize, demands for my involvement in national and international affairs began to mushroom. En route to Oslo I had the opportunity to discuss racial matters with the lord chancellor of Britain and with members of the British Parliament. I also participated in the organization of a movement to bring together colored people in the London area. It included West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians, and Africans who, together, were fighting racial injustice in Britain. 

In our struggle for freedom and justice in the U.S., which has also been so long and arduous, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We have honored Chief Lutuli for his leadership, and we know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the State, increasing repression, culminating in the shootings of Sharpeville and all that has happened since.

Today great leaders-Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe-are among the hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison. Against the massively armed and ruthless State, which uses torture and sadistic forms of interrogation to crush human beings-even driving some to suicide-the militant opposition inside South Africa seems for the moment to be silenced. 

It is in this situation, with the great mass of South Africans denied their humanity, denied their dignity, denied opportunity, denied all human rights; it is in this situation, with many of the bravest and best South Africans serving long years in prison, with some already executed; in this situation we in America and Britain have a unique responsibility. For it is we, through our investments, through our governments' failure to act decisively, who are guilty of bolstering up the South African tyranny.

Our responsibility presents us with a unique opportunity. We can join in the one form on nonviolent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa, the action which African leaders have appealed for: a massive movement for economic sanctions.

I accept this award with an abiding faith

This was, for most of us, our first trip to Scandinavia, and we looked forward to making many new friends. We felt we had much to learn from Scandinavia's democratic socialist tradition and from the manner in which they had overcome many of the social and economic problems that still plagued far more powerful and affluent nations. In both Norway and Sweden, whose economies are literally dwarfed by the size of our affluence and the extent of our technology, they have no unemployment and no slums. Their men, women, and children have long enjoyed free medical care and quality education. This contrast to the limited, halting steps taken by our rich nation deeply troubled me. 

I brought greetings from many Americans of goodwill, Negro and white, who were committed to the struggle for brotherhood and to the crusade for world peace. On their behalf I had come to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. It was indeed a privilege to receive the Nobel Prize on behalf of the nonviolent movement, and l pledged that the entire prize of approximately $54,000 would be used to further the movement. 

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept the idea that the "is-ness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "ought-ness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds 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 even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. 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, other-centered men can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow down before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. 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. 

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. 

I fought hard to hold back the tears. My emotions were about to overflow. Whatever I was, I owed to my family and to all those who struggled with me. But my biggest debt I owed to my wife. She was the one who gave my life meaning. All I could pledge to her, and to all those millions, was that I would do all I could to justify the faith that she, and they, had in me. I would try more than ever to make my life one of which she, and they, could be proud. I would do in private that which I knew my public responsibility demanded. 

What now?

The Nobel Peace Prize was a proud honor, but not one with which we began a "season of satisfaction" in the civil rights movement. We returned from Oslo not with our heads in the clouds, congratulating ourselves for marvelous yesterdays and tempted to declare a holiday in our struggle, but with feet even more firmly on the ground, convictions strengthened and determinations driven by dreams of greater and brighter tomorrows. . 

In accepting the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, I asked why such an honor had been awarded to a movement which remained beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which was surging forward with majestic scorn for risk and danger; to a movement which had not won the very peace and brotherhood which were the essence of Count Alfred Nobel's great legacy. 

I suggested then that the prize was not given merely as recognition of past achievement, but also as recognition, a more profound recognition, that the nonviolent way, the American Negro's way, was 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. 

In almost every press conference after my return from Oslo I was asked, "What now? In what direction is the civil rights movement headed?" I could not, of course, speak to for the entire civil right movement. There were several pilots; I was but one, and the organization of which I was president, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was, mainly, a Southern organization seeking solution to the peculiar problems of the South. 

Lecture at University of Oslo 

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for "the least of these." Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. The wealthy nations must go all out to bridge the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority.

December 11, 1964

Pressure continued to build for SCLC to open offices in various cities of the North. We reached a decision on this after the "Jobs and Freedom Tour" of ten Northern cities that spring. Even though SCLC's main base of operations remained in the South, where we could most effectively assault the roots of racial evils, we became involved to a much greater extent with the problems of the urban North. 

On another level, I now had to give a great deal of attention to the three problems which I considered as the largest of those that confront mankind: racial injustice around the world, poverty, and war. Though each appeared to be separate and isolated, all were interwoven into a single garment of man's destiny. 

Whatever measure of influence I had as a result of the importance which the world attaches to the Nobel Peace Prize would have to be used to bring the philosophy of nonviolence to all the world's people who grapple with the age-old problem of racial injustice. I would have to somehow convince them of the effectiveness of this weapon that cuts without wounding, this weapon that ennobles the man who wields it. 

I found myself thinking more and more about what I consider mankind's second great evil: the evil of poverty. This is an evil which exists in Indiana as well as in India; in New Orleans as well as in New Delhi. 

Cannot we agree that the time has indeed come for an all-out war on poverty-not merely in President Johnson's "Great Society," but in every town and village of the world where this nagging evil exists? Poverty-especially that found among thirtyfive million persons in the United States-is a tragic deficit of human will. We have, it seems, shut the poor out of our minds and driven them from the mainstream of our society. We have allowed the poor to become invisible, and we have become angry when they make their presence felt. But just as nonviolence has exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, we must now find ways to expose and heal the sickness of poverty-not just its symptoms, but its basic causes. 

The third great evil confronting mankind was one about which I was deeply concerned. It was the evil of war. At Oslo I suggested that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, including relations between nations. This was not, I believed, an unrealistic suggestion. 

World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable. All other methods have failed. Thus we must begin anew. Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built. 

Racial injustice around the world. Poverty. War. When man solves these three great problems he will have squared his moral progress with his scientific progress. And, more importantly, he will have learned the practical art of living in harmony. 

The Nobel Peace Prize had given me even deeper personal faith that man would indeed rise to the occasion and give new direction to an age drifting rapidly to its doom. 

Wherever I traveled abroad, I had been made aware that America's integrity in all of its world endeavors was being weighed on the scales of racial justice. This was dramatically and tragically evidenced when that travesty of lawlessness and callousness in Meridian, Mississippi, was headlined in Oslo on the very day of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. On the same day the civil rights movement was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, a U.S. commissioner in Mississippi dismissed charges against nineteen of the men arrested by the FBI in connection with the brutal slaying of three civil rights voter registration workers in Mississippi the previous summer. I was convinces that the whole national conscience must be mobilized to deal with the tragic situation of violence, terror, and blatant failure of justice in Mississippi. We considered calling for a nationwide boycott of Mississippi products.

Address at Recognition Dinner in Atlanta 

I must confess that I have enjoyed being on this mountaintop and I am tempted to want to stay here and retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But something within reminds me that the valley calls me in spite of all its agonies, dangers, and frustrating moments. I must return to the valley. Something tells me that the ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy. So I must return to the valley-a valley filled with misguided bloodthirsty mobs, but a valley filled at the same time with little Negro boys and girls who grow up with ominous clouds of inferiority forming in their little mental skies; a valley filled with millions of people who, because of economic deprivation and social isolation, have lost hope, and see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. I must return to the valley-a valley filled with literally thousands of Negroes in Alabama and Mississippi who are brutalized, intimidated, and sometimes killed when they seek to register and vote. I must return to the valley all over the South and in the big cities of the North-a valley filled with millions of our white and Negro brothers who are smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.

January 27, 1965

Aside from the proposed boycott, however, there was a more immediate opportunity for Congress to speak out in a way that would remedy the root cause of Mississippi's injustices-the total denial of the right to vote to her Negro citizens. On Monday, January 4, 1965, the House of Representatives had the opportunity to challenge the seating of the entire Mississippi delegation in the House. Under the provisions of the Act of February 23, 1870, readmitting Mississippi to representation in the Congress, it was stipulated that the principal condition for readmission was that all citizens twenty-one years or older, who had resided in the state for six months or more and who were .neither convicts nor insane, be allowed to vote freely. Mississippi had deliberately and repeatedly ignored this solemn pact with the nation for more than fifty years and maintained seats to which she was not entitled in an indifferent Congress. The conscience of America, troubled by the twin Mississippi tragedies of the presence of violence and the absence of law, could have expressed itself in supporting this moral challenge to immoral representation.

NEXT: Chapter 25: Malcolm X