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Mayfield: Peace, hope & prizes

by Rich Mayfield

The great hue and cry from America’s right over the designation of President Obama as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner had me returning to another time when shock and indignation marked the standard conservative response. It was 1964 and – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – it was the last time the prize was awarded to an African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King.It was my first year of college and I was caught up in the political fervor that was spreading like wildfire across campuses throughout America. Late night discussions in smoke-filled dorm rooms had us neophytes philosophizing on America’s extensive list of problems and our easy-enough solutions. So when Dr. King was announced as that year’s Peace Prize winner, many of us saw it as a powerful confirmation of our convictions. King was a symbol of what could be achieved when the deepest of hopes combined with the bravest of actions. Of course such naivete was soon tempered by the failure of too many on the left to commit to non-violent civil disobedience for a just cause and too many on the right to acknowledge the legitimacy of equal rights for all. Still, many of us were stunned by the vitriol spewed against the Nobel Committee’s selection and the Civil Rights Movement in general. The reaction from southern politicians, both Democrat and Republican, was expected but even conservatives in the north let loose their invectives. On his opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater piously declared, “You can’t legislate morality” and William Buckley’s National Review magazine had this to say about Dr. King:”For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the ‘cake of custom’ that holds us together. With their doctrine of ‘civil disobedience,’ they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes – particularly the adolescents and the children – that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed – and, no doubt, with the best of intentions – and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.” (Sept. 7, 1965)Part of that whirlwind, so dreaded by Mr. Buckley and others, has brought millions of African-Americans into the mainstream of American life and now even into the White House. The conservative reaction to President Obama’s award has ranged from careful criticisms of his alleged lack of political progress to the insipid and often hate-filled rants of radio and TV commentators. In the end, many of these outspoken critics will find themselves, as did their ideological predecessors, on the wrong side of both history and morality. Long before his death and in the midst of many disappointments and failures, Dr. King had entered into that Parthenon of men and women who represent more than what they have accomplished in their own lives. He became an iconic force that empowered the imaginations of millions to soar beyond their own limited visions and experiences. For 250 years, America has been shaped and guided by these mythic figures who are more than the sum of their historical accomplishments. Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, to be sure, but also Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Matthew Shepherd. Although the Nobel Committee claims the prize was offered for actions already taken, I suspect President Obama may have cringed just a bit when he learned of his newly bestowed honor and, perhaps upon reflection, come to the realization that this prize is a powerful declaration of where millions and millions of people around the world have placed their hopes and dreams for a better, more peace-filled life for themselves and the generations to come.”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 motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.” (Nobel Acceptance Speech. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., December 10, 1964.)Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to editor@summitdaily.com.


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