The year 1964 was a difficult one for the United States. The nation had suffered the assassination of a beloved President in November of the year before.
The war in Vietnam was heating up in 1964: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which escalated the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, was passed by Congress in August. By the end of the year more than 23,000 U.S. troops were there.
Public protest against the war also began that year Joan Baez led six hundred people in an antiwar demonstration in December. It was also the time of great racial tension across the nation, especially in Alabama and Mississippi.
On December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose actual birthday is today, gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which he had been awarded—and at that time he was the youngest person ever to receive that prestigious prize.
As was true for many of his public talks, King’s address on that December day in Oslo, Norway, was a powerful one. In spite of all the negative things going on in the world and in the U.S., King was positive and hopeful about the future.
In that memorable speech King said,
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 mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.
President Obama’s seventh, and last, State of the Union address was delivered on Tuesday of last week. It is noteworthy that in his speech, the President referred to King and quoted his words about “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
Then at the very end of his hour-long talk, the President emphasized that he was “optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
I am not sure what all King, or the President, had in mind by uttering those words. But at the very least it is an expression of hope that truth is more powerful than falsehood and that love is more powerful than hate—in spite of what might seem to be the case at times.
That same confidence in the future was expressed by Theodore Parker (1810-60) in words that both King and Obama have quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
There is a lot of negativity in our country now, and that “gloom and doom” is being stoked by the politicians running for the White House this year. Because of 24-hour cable news, people constantly see and hear about the bad things that are happening.
Almost three-fourths of the general public in the U.S. is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.
Given the mood of the nation and all the criticism constantly heaped upon him and his presidency, it is remarkable that the President was able to be so upbeat in his SOTU message.
And in spite of all the negativity, it is heartening that just as King did in his 1964 speech, President Obama was able to emphasize that, indeed, unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.