Here, on this blog that wrestles with and searches for America, I can hardly let the holiday honoring one of our greatest citizens pass without note. Dr. King did more than maybe any other American (with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln) to publicly call this country to a true vision of itself. He saw what we were, what we could be, and most strange of all, he believed that there was a simple (though arduous) path to be walked between the two points. If they could see past his race, I believe the nation’s founders, brought back to life today, would acknowledge that his vision of the country was the fullest realization of their patriot dreams, and that in a very real sense some of the final battles of the American Revolution were fought on the road from Selma, and on the bus to Montgomery, and in the Birmingham jail.
Happily for my purposes, King doesn’t just connect with the “American” interest for this blog—his use of language is poetic and powerful and of real interest to anyone who wants to be serious about American writers. Most of us know his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, and some of us probably know passages of his final speech or his letter from jail. I thought today I’d share an excerpt of something you may never have encountered—a portion of his acceptance speech upon having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. I’ll make a few comments afterwards, but mostly I just hope you read this, and remember Dr. King today. He believed in all of us more than we have ever given reason to deserve. He had more faith in our ability to hear the better angels of our nature than any of our leaders, before or since. May we make him glad of that faith.
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround 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 refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. 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 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, 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. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ 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. 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.”
It’s a powerful speech: you can read the rest of it here, if you like. What touches me most deeply is how profoundly American it is—for all that my country has to be ashamed of in the racism that Dr. King and the civil rights movement confronted, we can also be proud that we are a country that had raised up the banners King looked to as ideals. When he says (in his more famous speech) that his dream is “deeply rooted in the American dream”, he’s being fully honest. He was a man who believed in the freedoms this country guarantees to its citizens (however much we break that promise). He was a man who was convinced in part by our nation’s history that a group of people dedicated to the right cause could never be defeated, not for good. When America’s founding documents promised him the equality, opportunity, and liberty he had been denied, he didn’t see it as a cruel joke, but rather as an inherent element at the core of the American identity, which would one day have to win out over ignorance and cruelty and injustice. His America could no more prevent the new birth of freedom than a child can stop itself from growing into an adult—it is carved into our destiny as a people.
I’m disappointed at the places where progress remains slow, and angry that justice still lies wounded in the streets for too many people. But the message of this day is that Dr. King was right about us. We have come farther today than we had in 1964. We had come farther by then than we had by 1861. This wasn’t inevitable—it took people to work and act and risk and sometimes give up their lives. All of them committed themselves knowing that the final victory was far off. So it is for us. May we work and act and risk—yes, perhaps even our safety, our very lives, when necessary—for justice. That city of freedom may still be a ways off, but I feel like we’re getting close enough to hear them singing, and it makes me want to run these last few miles.