Monday, January 18, 2010

creative turmoil

In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Believe it or not, there were many then who asked why he won, when he hadn't accomplished his goal yet. The National Voting Rights Act had not yet been passed, and racial segregation and intimidation was still rampant in the United States, especially in the South.

King raised this point himself in his acceptance speech:

"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. 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, and to a movement which has not yet won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. 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 questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression."

Looking back, it seems to me that the Nobel Prize committee was not only affirming the rightness of Dr. King's nonviolent approach, but lifting up a beacon of hope for oppressed peoples around the world. I think they also saw an opportunity to provide Dr. King and his movement with a huge dose of encouragement and validation before their nation, and before the world, that could help bring about the change for which they were marching.

In this speech, Dr. King speaks of living in a dark and uncertain time, and of his fervent belief that the struggle is one full of hope: "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."

There is so much darkness and uncertainty in our world, and so many nay-sayers who criticize and find fault with those who speak of hope and put their stock in the future rather than grabbing what they can get in the present. I love this speech because of the way Dr. King uses the international forum to brush the critics aside, and to confer the honor of the moment not to his own movement, but to the "humble children of God" who are "willing to suffer for righteousness' sake."

I hope that you are celebrating this national day of service today. Take a moment to read Dr. King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and hopefully to find a new spirit of hope in these dark and uncertain days.

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