The Quest for Peace and Justice

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On Martin Luther King Day the Nobel Prize organization in Oslo, Norway, released a rare recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” It was the first time the audio has been available to a global audience since Dr. King delivered the address in 1964. In the recording, King, age 35, outlined his future goals—to address the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war as global evils. This problem of spiritual and moral lag, which constitutes modern man's chief dilemma, expresses itself in three larger problems which grow out of man's ethical infantilism,” he said. “Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.”

The “chief dilemma” and the problem of “moral lag” echo Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal’s influential report, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published exactly twenty years before. Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned Myrdal in an effort to lead an unbiased analysis of the practices, patterns of segregation, and the rhetoric of the Jim Crow South. The study called attention to the contradiction between the egalitarian ideals that white Americans championed, and the daily betrayal of those ideals—underscoring “a century-long lag of public morals.” Myrdal concluded this was particularly true in the South, where the courts and the police failed to enforce the Constitution.

An American Dilemma would eventually help destroy the ''separate but equal'' racial policy in the United States. As Shari Cohen, Ph.D. wrote in the Carnegie Results: Its moral wake-up call for Americans to live up to the democratic ideals of the ‘American Creed’ became a powerful justification that united the major groups responsible for the civil rights movement.” Dr. Martin Luther King picked up on Myrdal’s view that opening hearts and minds was an important step toward lasting change. 

But the struggle for racial inequality in America is still far from resolved —in the economy, health care, education, and in access to the voting booth. This year, the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. comes at a unique moment in the voting rights struggle. The 2016 presidential election will be the first since the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act—one of Dr. King’s crowning achievements—that the country will no longer have the law’s full protection.

From 1965 until 2013, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act blocked 3,000 discriminatory voting changes.  But in 2013, the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted section 5 when it decided that states and counties with a history of discrimination in voting, previously covered by the preclearance provision in Section 4, would no longer have to consult federal authorities in order to change voting laws or a district map. Just before the Supreme Court Ruled, Geri Mannion, Director of the Corporation’s U.S. Democracy Program, explained, “As we know from the last few years, new voter registration and voter ID requirements continue to be barriers to those wanting to vote, especially minorities.” At stake is everyone’s right to have their voice counted: “Older people may not be able to produce their birth certificates, which are required by new voter identification laws. Young people also may not have appropriate identification, and college students have been challenged about their residency,” said Mannion.  Most at risk are certain portions of the electorate: African American, immigrants, and low income voters. In fact, after the Supreme Court Ruling, North Carolina immediately filed a raft of voting restrictions that would have the most impact on African Americans.

So even as we celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and listen to his recently released words, there are people across the country working to restrict the vote and others redoubling their efforts to register people, to encourage early voting, and to fight against stricter voter ID requirements. And almost half of the eligible voters in the United States won’t exercise their right to vote at all.

More video of MLK accepting the Nobel Prize

Gail Ablow is a Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Gail has been a leading documentary and investigative producer for ABC News, Bill Moyers and PBS, CNN, and CNBC.  Most recently, as a producer for Moyers & Co., she covered money and politics, economics and inequality, public participation in democracy, the criminal justice system, and explorations of contemporary culture on multiple platforms, including TV, web, and radio. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and contributors, not necessarily of the Corporation.