ON DECEMBER 10, 1964 Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he said:
“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.”
Recall some of the events in Dr. King’s life that preceded his making that statement. His home in Montgomery, Alabama had been bombed during the Montgomery bus boycott. His wife and 7-month-old daughter were in the house, and were thankfully unharmed. A bomb planted by members of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter at Montgomery’s 16th Street Baptist Church exploded and took the lives of four young girls. One of Dr. King’s compatriots in the civil rights struggle, Medgar Evers, was shot dead in his front yard as he went from his car to his front door and never quite got there.
In the face of these horrors, Dr. Martin Luther King still stood before the world and said, “I accept this award (The Nobel Peace Prize) with an abiding faith in America.”
All these events took place in my lifetime. I remember them well. Since then, I have lived to see significant steps made toward racial justice in our country. I’ve seen the election of an African-American as a United States president. I’ve seen the minister of what once was Dr. King’s father’s church — and where Martin Jr. himself preached — elected to the United States Senate.
Then, this past January 6th, I saw the same kind of hatred and fear and deadly ignorance that Dr. King faced surface once again. This time it wasn’t a bomb tossed onto a front porch, or a deadly explosion in an African-American church on a Sunday morning, or a civil rights worker shot dead in his front yard. As horrifying as those terrorist events were, this time the terror was aimed at the halls of the Capitol with Congress in session by persons who were egged on by a sitting president. Five people were dead in the aftermath.
We need you, Rev. King, now more than ever. Can you still speak to us of your “abiding faith in America” and of your “audacious faith in the future of (hu)mankind”? Can you still tell us that you “refuse to accept despair as the final response to the “ambiguities of history”; even as we now witness just how depraved and despicable some of those “ambiguities” can be?
Sadly, we do not have Dr. King with us to provide his answers. But if he could speak beyond the grave, I’m guessing this is what his response would be: If there is to be an abiding faith in America, and if there is still to be a refusal to accept despair, it is no longer in my hands. I gave it all I had — including my very life before I even reached my 40th birthday. Whatever faith there is yet to be had in America, whatever rejections of despair there may be; it is no longer up to me. You have the legacy of my words. Their meaning is now in your hands.
As presumptuous as I know it is, especially for a White privileged guy like myself, to try to channel Martin Luther King, I still take his imagined words to heart. By the early hours of last Thursday morning, even as Congress reconvened and certified the presidential election, I found my faith in America greatly tested and my despair overcoming my hope.
Today I thank Martin Luther King for calling me back and for reminding me that my American journey is still worth the taking. If he could maintain an “abiding faith in America” and refused to capitulate to despair, can I do any less? Can any of us who still believe in the promise of America — however severely tested that promise may be — do any less?
God bless and keep you Martin; and keep you alive in our hearts.