In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and both his acceptance speech and the Nobel Lecture he gave the following day have become touchstones for all who seek to study his words and follow his example. In the first speech, he said he was accepting the award on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, though he noted it might seem strange to give this prize to a movement still deeply in the midst of struggle. But Dr. King believed it recognized a shared vision of the ultimate end: “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.”
Dr. King said he had both “an abiding faith in America” and “an audacious faith in the future of mankind” to get there: “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.”
He continued: “I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow . . . 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.”
As always, Dr. King’s words speak to us today. At moments of violence, terror, and profound loss it can be too difficult to see anything at all past the dark midnights. We need the hope and strength to keep struggling towards a new day of peace, sisterhood, and brotherhood.
This is an appeal to all those who are eager to be beacons of hope and who have faith, like Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s “bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” I’ve said I know we can transform our nation and world because we have seen the impossible happen in our lifetime, including a pillar of Dr. King’s own dream: the crumbling of the centuries-old walls of legal racial apartheid in America thanks to the courageous witness of a small minority of parents, children, and lawyers who wanted a decent education and better life for Black children and the countless Black and white citizens who built the Civil Rights Movement to end legal segregation in American life. You and I now have the opportunity—and awesome responsibility—to compose and play the next movement of the symphony of freedom and justice. That will be the sound of the joyful new day children and youth everywhere deserve.