MLK, an American Hero-Laureate

by Jay Nordlinger

In America, the fact that Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize is not that big a deal. I dare say, relatively few know he won it. King was much bigger than the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes the prize makes the man. Sometimes the man enhances the prize. Throughout the world, however, the fact that King won the peace prize is, or was, a biggish deal. It increased his international reputation.

He won in 1964, at age 35. At that time, he was the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The year before was the March on Washington, and the “I Have a Dream” speech. When the Nobel for King was announced, in October 1964, we were nearing the end of a presidential campaign: President Johnson vs. Senator Goldwater.

David Garrow points out in his renowned biography of King (Bearing the Cross) that Johnson did not congratulate King after the Nobel announcement. This omission stung Mrs. King, in particular. But her husband explained, matter-of-factly, that the president was reluctant to offend white southerners so close to the election.

As always, the prize ceremony took place in December. Arriving in Oslo, King met with the local press, saying that he and his team viewed their trip as an educational opportunity: “We feel we have much to learn from Scandinavia’s democratic socialist tradition . . .” During the prize ceremony, the Norwegians offered music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (an opera about blacks in the Sea Islands of South Carolina by a Jewish composer from New York).

The Nobel Committee chairman, Gunnar Jahn, stressed the reason for King’s receipt of the prize: nonviolence. Jahn quoted the Sermon on the Mount: “. . . whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” King, in his acceptance speech, said that “civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.” And he noted that “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.”

He also said, “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.” That word “audacious,” or its cousin “audacity,” would play a big role in the rhetoric of a later Nobel peace laureate, Barack Obama.

#more#So, that was the acceptance speech. The next day, King delivered a different speech — the Nobel lecture — and it stands as one of his greatest orations (which, of course, is saying something). Part sermon, part political address, part philosophical meditation, it is wise and beautiful. Some passages achieve transcendence.

One passage, however, I regard as beneath him — and beneath the occasion of the speech. Johnson had beaten Goldwater the month before, in a landslide. And, in Oslo, King said,

Another indication that progress is being made was found in the recent presidential election in the United States. The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate who had become identified with extremism, racism, and retrogression. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path.

An older MLK might well have been ashamed of that rhetoric, or at least regretted it. For one thing, Goldwater’s view of government and economics was the opposite of fascist: was the classical-liberal view.

After his stay in Oslo, King traveled to nearby Stockholm, where he went to the home of the Myrdals, Gunnar and Alva. In due course, he traveled back to the States, to New York: where he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. King was fired with the idea of social democracy, saying that, in Scandinavia, they had “no unemployment and no slums.” He wanted a “broad alliance,” encompassing black and white alike, in the pursuit of “economic justice.”

The election won, Johnson invited King to the White House, to which the laureate flew from New York on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s private jet. At last, he went home to Atlanta, where young people in his church — Ebenezer Baptist — serenaded him with Christmas carols.

Just a little footnote: As Garrow tells us, Mrs. King had wanted some of the Nobel prize money — $54,000 — to be spent on transport to Scandinavia for family and friends. She also thought that some of the money should be set aside for the King children’s college education. King thought otherwise, believing that the funds in their entirety should be poured into the cause, the civil-rights movement: which they were.

To read King’s acceptance speech, go here. And for his Nobel lecture: here. And Happy MLK Day.

Editor’s note: Jay Nordlinger has written a history of the Nobel Peace Prize, forthcoming from Encounter Books.