Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968)
Born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father has served from then until the present, and from 1960 until his death Martin Luther acted as co-pastor. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen; he received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished Negro institution of Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of uncommon intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.
In 1954, Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights for members of his race, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation. He was ready, then, early in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Negroes and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Negro leader of the first rank.
In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience. and inspiring his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, a manifesto of the Negro revolution; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of Negroes as voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, “l Have a Dream”, he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure.
At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.
The Nobel Peace Prize 1964 was awarded to Martin Luther King Jr. "for his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population."
Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee on 10 December 1964
Not many years have passed since the name Martin Luther King became known all over the world. Nine years ago, as leader of the Negro people in Montgomery in the state of Alabama, he launched a campaign to secure for Negroes the right to use public transport on an equal footing with whites.
But it was not because he led a racial minority in their struggle for equality that Martin Luther King achieved fame. Many others have done the same, and their names have been forgotten.
Luther King’s name will endure for the way in which he has waged his struggle, personifying in his conduct the words that were spoken to mankind:
Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also!1
Fifty thousand Negroes obeyed this commandment in December, 1955, and won a victory. This was the beginning. At that time Martin Luther King was only twenty-six years old; he was a young man, but nevertheless a mature one.
His father is a clergyman, who made his way in life unaided and provided his children with a good home where he tried to shield them from the humiliations of racial discrimination. Both as a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and as a private citizen, he has been active in the struggle for civil rights, and his children have followed in his footsteps. As a boy Martin Luther King soon learned the role played by economic inequality in the life of the individual and of the community.
From his childhood years this left its indelible mark on him, but there is no evidence to suggest that as a boy he had yet made up his mind to devote his life to the struggle for Negro rights.
He spent his student years in the northern states, where the laws provided no sanction for the discrimination he had encountered in the South, but where, nevertheless, black and white did not mix in their daily lives. Yet living in the northern states – especially in a university milieu – was like a breath of fresh air. At Boston University, where he took a doctor’s degree in philosophy, he met Coretta Scott, who was studying singing. She was from his own state of Alabama, a member of the black middle class which also exists in the South.
The young couple, after being married, were faced with a choice: should they remain in the North where life offered greater security and better conditions, or return to the South? They elected to go back to the South where Martin Luther King was installed as minister of a Baptist congregation in Montgomery.
Here he lived in a society where a sharp barrier existed between Negroes and whites. Worse still, the black community in Montgomery was itself divided, its leaders at loggerheads and the rank and file paralyzed by the passivity of its educated members. As a result of their apathy, few of them were engaged in the work of improving the status of the Negro. The great majority were indifferent; those who had something to lose were afraid of forfeiting the little they had achieved.
Nor, as Martin Luther King discovered, did all the Negro clergy care about the social problems of their community; many of them were of the opinion that ministers of religion had no business getting involved in secular movements aimed at improving people’s social and economic conditions. Their task was “to preach the Gospel and keep men’s minds centered on the heavenly! ”
Early in 1955 an attempt was made to unite the various groups of blacks. The attempt failed. Martin Luther King said that “the tragic division in the Negro community could be cured only by some divine miracle!”
The picture he gives us of conditions in Montgomery is not an inspiring one; even as late as 1954 the Negroes accepted the existing status as a fact, and hardly anyone opposed the system actively. Montgomery was a peaceful town. But beneath the surface discontent smoldered. Some of the black clergy, in their sermons as well as in their personal attitude, championed the cause of Negro equality, and this had given many fresh confidence and courage.
Then came the bus boycott of December 5, 1955.
It looks almost as if the boycott was the result of a mere coincidence. The immediate cause was the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was in the section reserved for Negroes and was occupying one of the seats just behind the section set aside for whites, which was filled.
The arrest of Mrs. Parks not only aroused great resentment, but provoked direct action, and it was because of this that Martin Luther King was to become the central personality in the Negro’s struggle for human rights.
In his book Stride toward Freedom he has described not only the actual bus conflict, but also how, on December 5 after the boycott had been started, he was elected chairman of the organization formed to conduct the struggle.2
He tells us that the election came as a surprise to him; had he been given time to think things over he would probably have said no. He had supported the boycott when asked to do so on December 4, but he was beginning to doubt whether it was morally right, according to Christian teaching, to start a boycott. Then he remembered David Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” which he had read in his earlier years and which had made a profound impression on him. A sentence by Thoreau3 came back to him:”We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.”
But he was not convinced that the boycott would be carried out. As late as the evening of Sunday, December 4, he believed that if sixty percent of the Negroes cooperated, it would prove reasonably successful.
During the morning of December 5, as bus after bus without a single Negro passenger passed his window, he realized that the boycott had proved a hundred percent effective.
But final victory had not yet been won, and as yet no one had announced that the campaign was to be conducted in accordance with the slogan: “Thou shalt not requite violence with violence.” This message was given to his people by Martin Luther King in the speech he made to thousands of them on the evening of December 5, 1955. He calls this speech4 the most decisive he ever made. Here are his own words:
“We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and Justice.
But, [he continues] our method will be that of persuasion not coercion. We will only say to the people, “Let your conscience be your guide.” Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith … Once again we must hear the words of Jesus5 echoing across the centuries: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.”
He concludes as follows:
“If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written [in future generations], the historians will [have to pause and] say: “There lived a great people – a black people who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”
This battle cry – for such it was – was enthusiastically received by the audience. This was Montgomery’s moment in history, as Martin Luther King calls it.
His words rallied the majority of Negroes during their active struggle for human rights. All around the South, inspired by this slogan, they declared war on the discrimination between black and white in eating places, shops, schools, public parks, and playgrounds.
How was it possible to obtain such strong support?
Read full speech
To cite this section
MLA style: Award ceremony speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022. Mon. 17 Jan 2022.