Obama, MLK and that Nobel Peace Prize

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LeeAnna Keith is the author of The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford University Press).

President Obama shared a line of black American idiom in his Nobel Prize Speech for 2009. “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘iseness’ of man’s present condition makes him morally incapable of the reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reverend Doctor King was the oft-acknowledged spirit in the room in Oslo’s City Hall, the Man Behind the Man Behind the Podium. “Dr. King’s dream has come true,” pronounced Nobel Chiarman, Thorbjorn Jagland. Barack Obama himself claimed to be present as “a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work.”

Like King (and Gandhi), the president presented himself to the peace seekers as a believer in the virtue of struggle. There is “nothing passive,” he noted, in their example of being “beaten and jailed” in pursuit of the true peace of justice. These men embodied peace, nonviolent and yet terrible, engaged unceasingly and unto death in combat with their enemies.

In this spirit he depicted the American engagement with the world, even as he refused their example of laying down arms. A head of state cannot neglect the requirements of national defense, he argued, and indeed, should acknowledge that peace is more than just the absence of “visible conflict.” Lacking the “just peace” that affords “the inherent rights and dignity of every individual,” the arc of history would bend toward suffering and upheaval.

Americans in the world have not known what Dr. King called the “dangerous unselfishness” of those called to give up their lives nonviolently in pursuit of truth. We have made war terribly, repeatedly to shape the world in keeping with what President Obama called our own “enlightened self-interest.” This crusade will continue on his watch, for dignity and not terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and always as “a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”

Undaunted by the scale of this ambition, he asked peace seekers and enemies alike to envision “the world as it ought to be,” and to fight, with deadly force if necessary, on behalf of the just peace.

A person of less spectacular experience might doubt the possibility of success. But Barack Obama has been there and done that. By his own admission, he is “living testimony” to the victory of a just war.

Conceived in the 1960s spirit of “Make Love Not War,” the first biracial president of the United States stands before the Peace Prize Committee as the child of war. His was not the war for mastery and enslavement that engaged the ancestors of more conventional African American stock. The Nobel Prize for Obama helps the world to understand that long era of racial oppression as an age of war. By their charge to Obama and to the American people who elected him, they have honored the victors in the long war of overcoming that may now be said finally to be over.

Initiated in the age of Lincoln and the colored soldiers, the American war of overcoming achieved its first victory amid unprecedented violence. Emancipation itself served the aims of war, to wrest by violence all the force at the disposal of the enemy. Reconstruction’s Radical Republicans wielded the bloody shirt of wartime in their struggle to write the principles of black citizenship and voting rights into the highest law.

Defeated in the long racist decades that followed, the war of overcoming remained a “North Star,” as Obama offered for consideration, of faith in human progress. The twentieth century witnessed its great and terrible renewal, in a conflict transformed by the appalling, irresistible force of nonviolent direct action. Driven by the spirit of Gandhi and the too-human body and voice of Martin Luther King, Americans forcibly disarmed the struggle over black folks’ standing in the self-proclaimed Land of the Free. Barack Obama’s generation has come of age in an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence, and better yet, in an era of broadening respect for personal and cultural differences.

In this context, President Obama reminds us that peace is possible -- not without struggle and perhaps in our time only by use of force. As foreign policy, that is the party line of 60 years of wartime U.S. Presidents. Offered up by our champion of overcoming, however, the promise had the ring of hard-won wisdom.

And the crowd said, “Yes, we can.”

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