King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent struggle for racial equality in the United States was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize. King was the first major leader in the West to advocate social change without violence.

Summary of Event

Martin Luther King, Jr., ascended to national prominence in the United States during a struggle for civil rights that had its roots in a period of racial justice-seeking between the American Revolution and the Civil War. However, the struggles were not over. More needed to be done to bring about rapid racial integration within all sectors of American society to combat the violently repressive economic, political, and social atmosphere faced by black Americans. Moreover, African Americans needed leadership to offset a growing sense of apathy, divisiveness, and helplessness. Nobel Peace Prize;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King]
African Americans;civil rights leaders
Civil Rights movement
[kw]King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1964)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, King Wins the (Dec. 10, 1964)
[kw]Peace Prize, King Wins the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1964)
[kw]Prize, King Wins the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1964)
Nobel Peace Prize;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King]
African Americans;civil rights leaders
Civil Rights movement
[g]North America;Dec. 10, 1964: King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[08280]
[g]United States;Dec. 10, 1964: King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[08280]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1964: King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[08280]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 10, 1964: King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[08280]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 10, 1964: King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[08280]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1964: King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[08280]
King, Martin Luther, Jr.
[p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;Nobel Prize
Parks, Rosa

King, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, became visible in African American politics on a national level during the Montgomery bus boycott, which began as a minor racial incident on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger. The boycott evolved into a major strike by African Americans lasting 382 days and resulting in desegregation of Alabama buses. King was elected the first president of the Montgomery Improvement Association Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization responsible for leading the boycott. A resistance movement throughout the South grew out of the victory of the boycott, coalescing into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. King became the first president of the SCLC, and his voice began to be heard worldwide.

Between 1957 and 1968, King led voter registration drives and protest marches, traveled more than six million miles, and gave more than twenty-five hundred lectures and speeches. A charismatic speaker and scholar well versed in the philosophical works of great thinkers, King valued and embodied religious concepts. He pledged his life as a champion of the downtrodden in society and embraced and inspired nonviolent Nonviolence civil disobedience Civil disobedience through direct action as espoused through the life and teaching of Mahatma Gandhi of India. Before the eyes of the world, King led protest marches in which marchers met with police dogs, water hoses, and police brutality. During his own incarceration following a Birmingham protest march, King inspired his followers with his classic treatise “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (King)[Letter from a Birmingham Jail] He also wrote several books and was jailed many times; his life was threatened often.

As a result of the efforts of King and those who were led by him, other events also took place that helped transform King and the entire American society. On the national level, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration enacted the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which affirmed the rights of all Americans to vote in all elections. President John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, received overwhelming support in his election bid from King and his supporters. Following his election, Kennedy pledged support for the Civil Rights movement to support racial equality. One tangible result of Kennedy’s pledge was the dynamic cooperation of the Justice Department and the Civil Rights Commission in enforcing neglected voting rights laws. There was a tremendous upsurge in the number of voting rights suits initiated, from six during the entire Eisenhower administration to fifty-eight by 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated.

On August 28, 1963, King directed the largest demonstration that the U.S. capital had ever seen, the historic March on Washington March on Washington (1963) to demand jobs and freedom for all unemployed Americans, especially African Americans. Moreover, the march was staged to support a civil rights bill pending in the U.S. Congress and to support the movement’s economic goals. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech “I Have a Dream” speech (King)[I Have a Dream speech] at the march.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (front row, third from left) meets with other civil rights leaders at the White House in 1963.

(National Archives)

In 1964, when King was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the conditions faced by African Americans had improved on some levels with regard to human rights. There were fewer “whites only” signs throughout the South as more public facilities such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, and hotels had become desegregated. Less-blatant forms of racial discrimination persisted, as reflected, for example, by the common phrase that African Americans were “the last to be hired and the first to be fired.” Thus, the interaction between abject poverty and racial discrimination was identified by King as an enduring destructive force that was crippling the entire society and exacerbating the ordinary survival problems among underprivileged African Americans.

The Nobel Prize committee lauded King not because he had led a racial minority in its struggle for equality but for the way in which he waged his struggle. King was the first person in the Western world to show that a struggle could be waged without violence. He called the award a recognition of nonviolence as the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time—the need for humankind to overcome oppression and violence without the use of oppression and violence. King praised the real heroes and heroines of the freedom struggle and shared his prize money among his various organizations. In his acceptance speech, King reflected upon the problems of humankind worldwide: racial injustice, poverty, and war. In a mere four years, he would be dead of an assassin’s bullet.


King’s untiring leadership supported the election of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose administration passed two major civil rights laws—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—which provided the nation’s minorities legal protection to vote. King perceived, however, that these measures did not go far enough in reversing the hopeless plight of millions of blacks in northern city ghettos who suffered from racism and deprivation.

Through its nonviolent approach, King’s movement stirred the conscience of the American people and caused irrevocable changes in American society. Further, King’s objectives and principles strengthened and united minorities seeking freedom, justice, and racial integration. Leadership in the African American community has changed since the King era. Subsequent leaders seldom possessed the stamina, organizational ability, and charisma of King, and civil rights marches and delegations became sporadic and often did not involve direct participation of the masses. Nobel Peace Prize;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King]
African Americans;civil rights leaders
Civil Rights movement

Further Reading

  • Assensoh, A. B. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and America’s Quest for Racial Integration. Ilfrancombe, England: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1987. Testimonies from King’s former classmates, close friends, and colleagues. Highlights King’s early life and includes an analysis of his moral, political, and social philosophies, an analysis of King’s participation in the American movement for racial integration, and an assessment of King as a peacemaker and a nonviolent leader in the struggle for racial integration and justice in the United States. Appendixes, bibliography, index. Rare photographs.
  • Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New ed. New York: Quill, 1999. An extensive chronological documentation, the result of five years of research, the book spans the period from the Montgomery bus boycott to King’s assassination. Detailed, scholarly, well written, and easy to read. A valuable contribution, based on several hundred interviews, federal documents, unpublished sermons, and speeches. Extensive bibliography, index.
  • Hanigan, James. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Foundations of Nonviolence. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984. Critical and reflective. Seeks to understand what King meant by insisting that nonviolence was an absolute moral imperative of human life, the basis on which he rested his claim, and some implications and problems flowing from the claim. Addresses key questions: What did King hold to be true about reality and human life that led him to embrace nonviolence? What can be said critically about the coherence, meaningfulness, and truth of King’s position? Index.
  • Jaynes, Gerald D., ed. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989. Covers the years 1940 to 1989 and points out remaining impediments to racial equality. Follows the Kerner Commission report of the late 1960’s. A twenty-two-member study commission assessed indicators that showed that the status of African Americans relative to white Americans had stagnated since the early 1970’s.
  • King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action. Paris: UNESCO, 1999. A study of King’s philosophy of nonviolent action and protest, as inspired by the teachings of Gandhi. Part of the Cultures of Peace series, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
  • Nojeim, Michael J. Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. A thorough analysis of the nonviolent philosophies of King and Gandhi. Bibliography, index.
  • Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Based on intensive original research using source materials previously unavailable. The first major biography of King, by a professional biographer. In storytelling style, compassionate, rich in modern-day history. A portrait of the public figure and the private individual. Photographs, references, index.

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King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

Selma-Montgomery March

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Watts Riot

Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing

Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination