Central Themes in Martin Luther King’s Nobel Acceptance Speech

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964, during a ceremony that took place at the University of Oslo. Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, presented the award to Dr. King who, at the time, was the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. King Accepts on Behalf of the Civil Rights Movement

At the start of his speech, Dr. King accepted the award on behalf of the civil rights movement which he said was, “…moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.”

Dr. King reflected on those many dangers by recalling graphic images of nonviolent protestors met with violent reaction by police and those opposed to racial equality. He spoke of fire hoses and snarling dogs in Birmingham, the brutalization and murder of youthful civil rights workers in Mississippi, and the many churches bombed or set afire because they welcomed those who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement.

As if the violent reactions weren’t enough, Dr. King called attention to the financial plight suffered by a majority of the 22 million African-American people living in the United States at that time. He told the audience of dignitaries and royalty, “I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.”

The Crucial Political and Moral Issue of his Time

Dr. King posed a question to his distinguished audience that seems at once rhetorical, yet contains a yearning desire for confirmation. He asked why this prize was given to a movement mired in conflict, and one “…which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.”

In his speech, Dr. King said that “civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.” That basic belief was a guiding light by which he led the civil rights movement in the United States. However, holding that nonviolent ideal did not mean he was without the will to fight long and hard against discrimination. Dr. King told his audience that he believed the civil rights movement in the U.S. had shown that peaceful demonstration is not just a submissive gesture, but rather, a powerful moral transformational force that rejected “revenge, aggression and retaliation.”

He went on to answer the question posed above when he said, “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.” said Dr. King.

People Must Control their Own Destiny

During his address, Dr. King rejected the notions that people are helplessly pulled towards their destiny by societal forces, and that nations must continually follow the path to war. He refused to accept the idea that despair is the only possible outcome for people who are treated unfairly; and he would not believe that it’s man’s nature to remain morally incapable of reaching for a more compassionate world.

In his powerful, poetic style Dr. King said, “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.”

Optimism for the Future of Racial Equality

Much of Dr. King’s great vision and moral strength stemmed from his belief that societal wrongs could be made right by the efforts of good people. He spoke of a “new sense of dignity” among his followers in the movement. Dr. King reminded his audience about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he talked about the increasing number of white and black people in the U.S. who were willing to sit down together and work through shared problems. He compared these developments to a “lengthening superhighway of justice.”

The increasing momentum of the civil rights movement strengthened Dr. King’s belief in the possibility of racial equality, and he announced in no uncertain terms that he believed there were better days ahead.

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.” said Dr. King.

A Tribute to Those Struggling Millions

Dr. King closed his speech by honoring all the people involved in the struggle for racial equality. He likened his role as a Nobel recipient to that of a “curator of some precious heirloom,” to be held in trust for all those unknown people who worked, sacrificed, and believed in themselves enough to make the civil rights movement possible.

As a final encouragement, Dr. King said, “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.”