Peace Prize for 1964
Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn,
Chairman of the Nobel Committee
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
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!
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 a Negress 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
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.
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 Thoreau 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 speech 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 Jesus echoing across the centuries: "Love
your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use
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
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?
To answer this question we must recall the strong position enjoyed by the clergy
among the Negroes. The church is their only sanctuary in their leisure hours;
here they can rise above the troubles and cares of everyday life. Nor would the
appeal that they go into battle unarmed have been followed, had not the blacks
themselves been so profoundly religious.
Despite laws passed by Congress and judgments
given by the American Supreme Court, this struggle has not proved successful
everywhere, since these laws and judgments have been sabotaged, as anyone who
has followed the course of events subsequent to 1955 knows.
Despite sabotage and imprisonment, the Negroes have continued their unarmed
struggle. Only rarely have they acted against the principle given to them by
requiting violence with violence, even though for many of us this would have
been the immediate reaction. What can we say of the young students who sat down
in an eating place reserved for whites? They were not served, but they remained
seated. White teenagers mocked and insulted them and stubbed their lighted
cigarettes out on their necks. The black students sat unmoving. They possessed
the strength that only belief can give, the belief that they fight in a just
cause and that their struggle will lead to victory precisely because they wage
it with peaceful means.
Martin Luther King's belief is rooted first and foremost in the teaching of
Christ, but no one can really understand him unless aware that he has been
influenced also by the great thinkers of the past and the present. He has been
inspired above all by Mahatma Gandhi, whose example convinced him that it is
possible to achieve victory in an unarmed struggle. Before he had read about
Gandhi, he had almost concluded that the teaching of Jesus could only be put
into practice as between individuals; but after making a study of Gandhi he
realized that he had been mistaken.
"Gandhi" he says, "was probably the first person in history to
lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a
powerful and effective social force..."
In Gandhi's teaching he found the answer to a question that had long troubled
him: How does one set about carrying out a social reform?
"I found " he tells us, "in the nonviolent resistance philosophy
of Gandhi... the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed
people in their struggle for freedom."
Martin Luther King has been attacked from many quarters. Greatest was the
resistance he encountered from white fanatics. Moderate whites and even the more
prosperous members of his own race consider he is proceeding too fast, that he
should wait and let time work for him to weaken the opposition.
In an open letter in the press eight clergymen
reproached him for this and other aspects of his campaign. Martin Luther King
answered these charges in a letter written in Birmingham Jail in the spring of
1963. I should like to quote a few lines:
"Actually time itself is neutral... Human progress never rolls in on wheels
of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men, willing to be
co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of
the forces of social stagnation."
In answer to the charge that he has failed to negotiate, he replies:
"You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very
purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to... foster such a
tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to
confront the issue."
He reminds them that the Negroes have not won a single victory for civil rights
without struggling persistently to achieve it in a lawful way without recourse
to violence. When reproached for breaking the laws in the course of his
struggle, he replies as follows:
"There are two types of laws: just and unjust... An unjust law is a code
that is out of harmony with the moral law...
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or powerful majority group compels a
minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself...
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness
to accept the penalty."
Martin Luther King also takes the church to task. Even during the bus conflict
in Montgomery he had expected that white clergy and rabbis would prove the
Negroes' staunchest allies. But he was bitterly disappointed. "All too many
others," he recalls, " have been more cautious than courageous and
have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass
It is not difficult to understand Martin Luther King's disappointment with the
white church, for what is the first commandment of Christian teaching if not
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor?"
Yet even if victory is won in the fight against
segregation, discrimination will still persist in the economic field and in
social intercourse. Realistic as he is, Martin Luther King knows this. In his
book Strength to Love he writes:
"The Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value
in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though
necessary, step towards the final goal which we seek to realize, genuine
intergroup and interpersonal living...
But something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come
together spiritually because it is natural and right..."
True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient
to unenforceable obligations.
Martin Luther King's unarmed struggle has been waged in his own country; its
result has been that an obdurate, centuries-old, and traditional conflict is now
nearing its solution.
Is it possible that the road he and his people have charted may bring a ray of
hope to other parts of the world, a hope that conflicts between races, nations,
and political systems can be solved, not by fire and sword, but in a spirit of
true brotherly love?
Can the words of our poet Arnulf Overland come true?
The unarmed only can draw on sources eternal. The spirit alone gives victory.
It sounds like a dream of a remote and unknown future; but life is not worth
living without a dream and without working to make the dream reality.
Today, now that mankind is in possession of the atom bomb, the time has come to
lay our weapons and armaments aside and listen to the message Martin Luther King
has given us through the unarmed struggle he has waged on behalf of his race.
Luther King looks also beyond the frontiers of his own country. He says:
"More than ever before, my friends, men of all races and nations are today
challenged to be neighborly... No longer can we afford the luxury of passing by
on the other side. Such folly was once called moral failure; today it will lead
to universal suicide...
If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an
alternative to war and destruction. In our days of space vehicles and guided
ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence..."
Though Martin Luther King has not personally committed himself to the
international conflict, his own struggle is a clarion call to all who work for
He is the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can
be waged without violence. He is the first to make the message of brotherly love
a reality in the course of his struggle, and he has brought this message to all
men, to all nations and races.
Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his
faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who
has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb
attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who
nevertheless has never faltered.
To this undaunted champion of peace the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian
Parliament has awarded the Peace Prize for the year 1964.
[From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970]