By Malcolm Jones
Martin Luther King’s gifts were manifest. He was an inspired leader, a galvanizing orator, and a brilliant polemicist and prose writer. But more than anything, he knew how to rise to an occasion.
On December 10, 1964, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew the world was watching. He knew that he was the public face of the American civil rights movement, and that everything he said would be weighed and judged, sometimes harshly. Put in that position, almost any of us would tremble. But King just stepped up to the podium and delivered one of the finest speeches of his life.
“I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice,” he began. “I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement, which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.”
King was already famous as an orator, having delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before hundreds of thousands of people a year earlier (though hindsight has elevated that speech to a level of recognition that it did not receive in many news accounts of the 1963 March on Washington—the Washington Post story, for example, ignored it almost completely, mentioning only one line in the next day’s coverage). In the space of a few weeks, and forever thereafter, King was known almost exclusively for the “Dream” speech.
That speech, as good as it was, was also typical. As an American orator, King had no rivals in his lifetime. He delivered rousing speeches time and again, to memorable effect. And people came to expect it, which may explain why the Nobel speech unfortunately gets less attention.
If you watch a tape of the proceedings, you will be struck by the speaker’s somber reserve. There are no verbal crescendos; there is very little emotion and no drama at all. The template for most of King’s speeches was the sermon, but this is not a sermon. Quiet and reflective, it is more like a prayer.
Was he nervous? Surely he was. But he had faced tougher crowds than the Nobel audience. No, I think his muted delivery was deliberate. I think he wanted to draw people’s attention away from himself and put it on the substance of his text. But as a result, the address is almost too quiet. Because it is not the rousing King we expect, we are disappointed.
Read More Martin Luther King’s Nobel Speech Is an Often Ignored Masterpiece – The Daily Beast.