For the third time in its history, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to an American president in office.
The committee chose President Obama from 205 candidates (172 individuals, 33 organizations) whose names had been submitted as part of the committee’s annual process.
The choice of Obama surprised most Americans, as well as the international reporters in Oslo, Norway, where the announcement was made.
Obama took office in January, only two weeks before the deadline for submitting nominees. In the short time that followed, it appears, the Nobel committee was impressed with his efforts to improve diplomacy and eliminate nuclear arsenals. They must have considered his efforts to build understanding between America and the Muslim world in a Cairo speech, and his United Nations speech urging greater global unity. They also would have known that this peace candidate was waging war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The committee did not have to name a winner. Between 1901 and the present, the committee has refused the prize in 19 years.
President Theodore Roosevelt won the Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering a peace between Russia and Japan, which was threatening to destabilize Asia and possibly the Russian government.
Woodrow Wilson won the prize in 1919 for his efforts to end World War I and build a global League of Nations, which he believed would prohibit future wars.
In 2002 the committee gave its award to ex-president Jimmy Carter for his efforts, both in and out of office, to support peace and help struggling nations. And in 2007, former vice president Al Gore was the recipient for his international efforts on behalf of the environment.
The list of past winners is long and includes many now-obscure names. Many, though, should be familiar to us: Albert Schweitzer, George C. Marshall, Dag Hammarskjöld, Linus Pauling, Martin Luther King Jr., the International Red Cross, Anwar Al-Sadat, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela.
But the Peace Prize doesn’t always come with a supply of peace. The choices in the past have been controversial. Many were angered when the committee gave the award to Henry Kissinger in 1973, and even more were disappointed that it was never given to Mahatma Gandhi.
A Proud Moment in a Long Struggle
President Obama will be in New York on July 16 speaking to a crowd of 10,000 people. While he has addressed much larger groups, rarely has he spoken on such a significant occasion: America’s first black president will be giving the keynote speech at the 100th birthday celebration of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP was formed in 1909 to address a rising opposition to civil rights. Racism in America was discarding its subtlety, coming out in the open, and making a new bid for power. Southern legislators had enacted new laws that made it difficult, if not impossible, for black Americans to vote. Racial tensions ignited race riots, and more were coming.
Dr. W.E.B. DuBois edited the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, and helped frame the association’s goal:
“To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for the impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the court, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.”
The early years were daunting and Washington extended little sympathy for the cause. The NAACP addressed the need to end official segregation, promote black men to officers in the military, and oppose the rising enrollment in the Ku Klux Klan. The effort met consistent opposition from southern legislators who blocked federal legislation against lynching.
Halfway through its first century, the NAACP was confronting racism as virulent as ever. Black Americans were achieving some of their goals, but they were also being accused of seeking their rights too aggressively.
In the November 7, 1964, Post, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed this issue directly in his article, “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.”
“Among many white Americans who have recently achieved middle-class status or regard themselves close to it, there is a prevailing belief that Negroes are moving too fast and that their speed imperils the security of whites. Those who feel this way refer to their own experience and conclude that while they waited long for their chance, the Negro is expecting special advantages from the government. It is true that many white Americans struggled to attain security. It is also a hard fact that none had the experience of Negroes. No one else endured chattel slavery on American soil. No one else suffered discrimination so intensely or so long as the Negroes. In one or two generations the conditions of life for white Americans altered radically. For Negroes, after three centuries, wretchedness and misery still afflict the majority.
“Anatole France once said, ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids all men to sleep under bridges—the rich as well as the poor.’ There could scarcely be a better statement of the dilemma of the Negro today. After a decade of bitter struggle, multiple laws have been enacted proclaiming his equality. He should feel exhilaration as his goal comes into sight. But the ordinary black man knows that Anatole France’s sardonic jest expresses a very bitter truth. Despite new laws, little has changed in his life in the ghettos. …
“Charges that Negroes are going ‘too fast’ are both cruel and dangerous. The Negro is not going nearly fast enough, and claims to the contrary only play into the hands of those who believe that violence is the only means by which the Negro will get anywhere. …
“A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence. The ensuing white backlash intimidates government officials who are already too timorous, and, when the crisis demands vigorous measures, a paralysis ensues. …
“Our nation has absorbed many minorities from all nations of the world. In the beginning of this century, in a single decade, almost nine million immigrants were drawn into our society. Many reforms were necessary—labor laws and social-welfare measures— to achieve this result. We accomplished these changes in the past because there was a will to do it, and because the nation became greater and stronger in the process. Our country has the need and capacity for further growth, and today there are enough Americans, Negro and white, with faith in the future, with compassion, and will to repeat the bright experience of our past.”
The NAACP has no reason to close operations this year. There is, alas, still more work ahead. However, we hope they, and the country, savor the moment when President Obama shares the podium with America’s first black secretary of state, Colin Powell, and our first black attorney general, Eric Holder. America should be very proud of this organization and the long dedication of its generations of members.