Twenty-one Americans have won the Nobel Peace Prize. The first was President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, and the last was Barack Obama in 2009. All but one of the American laureates received the prize for efforts that had an international focus.
Martin Luther King Jr., who won the prize in 1964, was the anomaly.
The reason for his winning the coveted prize was — and remains — a shameful paradox for the United States. The United States props itself up as the global paragon of democracy, human rights, religious freedom and individual dignity. The United States even chastises other nations, taking some to war for not sharing its values.
King won the prize for leading the movement that showed the world that too many white Americans were shameless racists and hypocrites who denied an entire group of citizens, African-Americans, the democratic rights that whites took for granted for themselves in their daily lives.
The United States was shown to be as much a land of the marginalized and disenfranchised as it was a land of the free. The ideals enshrined in the nation’s honored documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were shown to be for the benefit and protection of white people.
During his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, King described the essence of the civil rights movement and the reason for his being awarded the prize.
"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. 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."
A white gunman killed him in Memphis a half century ago Wednesday. On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, King and all he stood for remain as relevant as ever with the ascendancy of Republicans and the election of Donald Trump as president.
"Post-racial" dreams of equality that preceded and briefly followed the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president have evaporated. The hopes of blacks have come full circle, back to the acute reality that America is a land of intractable structural injustices.
Voting rights were high on King’s agenda. He was present on May 26, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Today, with the rise of the GOP, attacks on voting rights have returned in full bloom.
Several states in many parts of the country passed measures making it harder for residents — particularly black people, the elderly, students and people with disabilities — to exercise their right to vote.
Although old practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests are gone, their replacements are equally draconian. They include purges of voter rolls, cuts to early voting, voter ID requirements and flawed rules for restoring ex-felons’ right to vote. The intent of these measures is clear: to suppress voting.
King also championed economic justice. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, found that last year the wage gap between blacks and whites was the worst it had been in nearly 40 years. The main reason for the gap had little to do with access to education, differences in work experience or where someone resided. EPI scholars found "discrimination … and growing earnings inequality in general" to be the major factors involved.
"Race is not a skill or characteristic that should have any market value as it relates to your wages, but it does," said Valerie Wilson, the director of the program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the EPI.
During a rally of sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, weeks before his death, King said of the wage gap of the time: "Now our struggle is for equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?"
Blacks always have been victims of unequal access to decent and affordable housing, beginning with their status as "free people" after the Emancipation Proclamation and later, the 13th Amendment.
Before his assassination, King worked with congressional leaders and President Johnson on housing equality. Although he influenced the drafting of the Fair Housing Act, he did not live to see it become law. Fittingly, Johnson used the tragedy of King’s death to urge Congress to quickly pass the legislation, which it did.
The legislation was groundbreaking in its intent, prohibiting discrimination related to the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.
Today, some major goals of the 50-year-old act are unfulfilled. Access to decent and affordable housing remains unequal, and few African-American leaders see any hopes of change with Ben Carson, a right-wing black Republican, heading the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
As to be expected, Carson, in GOP tradition, pejoratively refers to the major portions of the Fair Housing Act as "social engineering."
Although King was not involved in campaigns involving police shootings of unarmed African-American males that are common today, leaders of black organizations, such as Black Lives Matter and others, connect with King’s vision and methods.
"We are very aware of history, and we build on it," said Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator of the Black Youth Project 100. "We are about reclaiming what MLK means. His work and his image have been sanitized by people who are interested in maintaining the current system of oppression."
Dante Berry, director of the Million Hoodies Movement based in New York, said: "MLK was a radical, very strategic and uncompromising in his strive for justice. We’re reclaiming our own history in a way that is truthful. What makes people uncomfortable is that we’re challenging people to think about what it looks like — what education, what the justice system, what society — looks like when black lives matter."
Even sports personalities, such as Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the movement to kneel during the national anthem at National Football League games to protest police killings of unarmed black men, are inspired by King’s nonviolent disobedience.
Kaepernick’s simple kneel is potent, and it will live forever even though the quarterback lost his NFL career.
After all the prayers, the marches, the speeches, the violent confrontations, the nights in jail and his murder at age 39, what is King’s legacy? What does his work mean for our time?
Peniel E. Joseph of the Washington Post says it well:
"King’s lasting gift to the nation — what makes 1968 such an important and resonant year for our time — was his unflinching recognition of America’s shortcomings and his persistent belief that the nation could transform itself through collective sacrifice, political struggle and spiritual renewal.
"In an era before mass incarceration weaponized the criminal justice system, King fully understood the depth and breadth of structural racism and that economic inequality required personal sacrifice and steadfast moral courage. Stalking the world stage like a man on fire, King — who had dined with presidents, European and African royalty, and international dignitaries — perished fighting alongside garbage workers and welfare mothers."