More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was honored by the Nobel Committee for his nonviolent campaign against racism in the United States.
"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," began King in his acceptance speech in Stockholm, Sweden. "I accept this reward on behalf of a civil rights movement [that] is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and rule of justice."
But King's speech was far from pure adulation, and the civil rights leader quickly sought to draw attention to the ongoing struggle of black Americans seeking dignity and respect.
"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," said King. "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."
"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 [that] is the essence of the Nobel Prize," said King.
King quickly concluded that his Nobel Prize is more an endorsement of nonviolence as a powerful tactic against oppression than it is a validation of success for King himself, the "answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time."
"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts," said King. "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 [that] rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."
Of course, King himself was conflicted over the political efficacy of nonviolence direct action. In his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," King questioned whether nonviolence could ever bring about the end to oppression he fought for. "Over the past few years, I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek," wrote King. "I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends."
But standing before the Nobel Committee in Oslo, King saw his Peace Prize as a validation that humankind, far beyond the borders of the U.S., could abandon the vicious cycle of violence as the engine of human political and moral progress.
"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality," said King in Oslo. "This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. 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 people 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."