Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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In his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, Jr. likens his experiences in the civil rights movement to traveling on a road. Explain how using a road as a symbol for his experiences impacts the meaning of the speech. Be sure to use specific details from the speech to support your ideas.

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In Oslo, on December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and likened his struggle in the civil rights movement to a road he is traveling. In his speech he says,

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this...

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In Oslo, on December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and likened his struggle in the civil rights movement to a road he is traveling. In his speech he says,

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are traveling to find a new sense of dignity.

King likely made this comparison for many reasons. Through his activism, King was literally marching and traveling on many American roads across the country. He is famous for his March on Washington in 1963, in which he advocated for a change in civil rights. He also helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, which aimed to register African-American voters. In this particular march, protesters walked 54 miles.

Notably, roads also represent progress and change. King says,

This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope.

King discusses how the violence of the past must end and make way for peace in the future. He sees their marches as a walk towards progress. Furthermore, this was around the time when American highways were being built and expanded upon. Roads represented progress, patriotism and growth for American people. King likely attributed this to the civil rights movement:

It has led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

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The image of a road that Dr. King uses in his speech is a metaphor for the long fight for freedom that African Americans have waged. He writes:

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity.

It is a particularly apt metaphor for King, because he rose to national and international prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, when African Americans in that city chose to walk, rather than ride, on segregated buses. Their roads were literally and figuratively long, as the boycott lasted for over a year before seating on the buses was desegregated.

Using the symbol of a road also implies a long and ongoing journey. African Americans' journey on this road started before Dr. King joined the journey, and Dr. King also suggests that the journey on this road will continue after he is gone. He writes:

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.

By using the image of a road, Dr. King suggests that the journey towards freedom and equality will continue in the future, and this image changes the meaning of the speech, because he implies that he is just one figure in the journey along this road.

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King uses the road metaphor in the fourth paragraph of his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.  During his presentation, he cites the brutality against civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, and Philadelphia, Mississippi.  He wonders why he is even chosen to win the award, given the violence against his movement.  King goes on to state that civil rights is part of mankind's progress and even gives it a holy goal when he states that the races will be considered equally before God.  He even states that the alternative to this journey toward civil rights is a journey to "thermonuclear destruction," which was a very real concern at the height of the Cold War.  King says that the new Civil Rights Bill (which was just signed into law in 1964) will be part of a new civil rights "superhighway" of justice in which people of all races will unite to solve their common problems.  King uses the highway metaphor sparingly, but he uses it to describe humanity's progress.  

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