On October 14th, 1964, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King became the youngest man to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace; he was only 35. Oftentimes we forget how much Rev. King accomplished during his tragically shortened, truncated life. In fact, by the time he’d gone back South to lend a hand to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, King was only 39.
Sadly, like so many stories of American heroism, Rev. King’s life story has been emulsified and homogenized to the point where his stone-cold courage in the face of bone-chilling fear is varnished over by two generations of race-baiters and government pimps. Simply put, in an age where a black man can stand exultant before tens of thousands of cheering people as the freely elected President of the United States, and upbraid his political opponents to “tone down the rhetoric”, we cannot envision a time in America when not only the rhetoric –but the deeds, as well– were far from “toned down”.
Yes, he was a flawed man; but Reverend King was also a remarkably brave, eloquent, determined and loving man. Even though I’ve heard the speech innumerable times, my eyes still well up when I read the closing lines of his famous “I Have a Dream” oratory:
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…
I have a dream today..
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Here in these afteryears, it is sometimes difficult to recall the fevers abroad in the land in 1964; It was genuinely, terrifyingly dangerous for a black man to speak about little black boys holding the hands of little white girls. Less than ten years before, a young black teenager named Emmett Till had the temerity to merely speak some words to the white wife of a rural Mississippi grocery-store owner, and wound up brutally murdered, his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Reverend King knew absolutely that he was tempting the fates to say such things. But, in his courage, he said them anyway.
It was his dream, the dream of his countrymen that yes, indeed, the Constitution really meant what it said;
That All Men are Created Equal, Endowed by their Creator with Certain Inalienable Rights. In a remarkably short period of time, Reverend King’s dream became a reality: Little black boys now hold the hands of little white girls, and no one is ashamed or fearful. And, at least in the realm of real, palpable racial progress, we are, most certainly, “free at last…”
Other loving, courageous, brave and determined American public men have had dreams; dreams on behalf of their countrymen to be safe from fear, safe to live out the creeds of the Constitution. Ronald Reagan was such a man:
Early in my first term, I called a meeting of the Joint Cheifs of Staff, and said to them: Every offensive weapon ever invnted by man has resulted in the creation of a defense against it; isn’t it possible in this age of tehnology, that we could invent a defensive weapon that could intercept nuclear weapons and destroy them as they emerged from their silos?
They looked at each other, then asked if they could huddle for a few moments. Very shortly, they came out of their huddle and said, “Yes. it’s an idea worth exploring”. My answer was, “Let’s do it.”
-Ronald Reagan, An American Life, 1990
In announcing the selection of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King as the recipient of the 1964 Peace Prize, the New York Times thought it appropriate to inform their readers of the mission of the Prize, as stated by the Nobel Committee:
The prize honors acts “for the furtherance of brotherhood among men and to the abolishment or reduction of standing armies and for the extension of these purposes.”
Reverend King, as a devout follower of Jesus Christ, and a very public one at that, most certainly fit the first criteria: to further the brotherhood among men. I’m not so sanguine about the second, though. The size of armies were rather unaffected by the life of Martin Luther King. Not so Ronald Reagan.
Like recalling the courage of Martin Luther King, we are well-served to remember the courage of Ronald Reagan for pondering the specter of a Strategic Defense Initiative, and for announcing it early in 1983: The Soviet Union was still plundering around the globe, its citizens still under the Iron Thumb of the ruling oligarchs and Leonid Brezhnev. The General Secretary spurned every overture of simple, human dialog with the recently sworn-in President Reagan, and the operatives of Soviet intelligence were whipping up anti-American sentiment throughout Western Europe.
It was into this milieu that Reagan proceeded with confidence: That Americans deserved to live under an umbrella of safety, and that they could invent one, if need be, by the sweat of their brow, and the creative intelligence of their minds.
The Soviets were persuading an alarming number of Westerners that, if Reagan and NATO proceeded with their plans to install MX and Pershing II missiles in Europe, if would lead to an arms race that no one could win, and which America would have the culpability of starting. The only reasonable answer was a “nuclear freeze”. Plus, the Soviets were sure, any “strategic defense” would violate the precepts of existing anti-ballistic missile treaties.
Just as Martin Luther King knew that all human beings had God-inspired, intrinsic worth, Ronald Reagan knew–knew— that the American Ideal could, and ultimately would, prevail over Soviet tyranny. And just as Martin Luther King has been proven correct by the glow of history, so has Ronald Reagan. And, because of Reagan’s Dream, Soviet Armies no longer stare with contempt at NATO armies across miles of unbroken barbed wire and concrete submarine pens. No longer do we have tens of thousands of nuclear-tipped devices ready to annihilate one another across a blood-filled ocean. The armies that the Nobel Committee rightly identify as the predictor of a worthy Peace Prize recipient have long since stood down.
On October 14th, 1964, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was awarded a well-deserved Nobel Prize. Where is Ronald Reagan’s?