By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It’s a known fact that in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became the third Black leader to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Across the nation, the achievement by America’s most prominent Civil Rights leader has been mentioned in countless documents, school history books and newspaper articles.
But, the story behind King’s Nobel Peace Prize remained a secret for more than 50 years…until now.
Who nominated Dr. King for this honor? Was it his closest friend and adviser, Minister Ralph Abernathy, or A. Phillip Randolph, the “Dean of Negro Leaders,” who helped initiate the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech? Or could it have been Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., the Civil Rights leader, who was with King when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
The answer is none of them. In fact, no one from the racially-charged South or the Civil Rights Movement nominated King for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The nomination came from a tight-knit organization of white religious residents in Philadelphia whose members included Betsy Ross and other influential Quakers who viewed King on the same level as William Penn, a Quaker who is also the founder of the state of Pennsylvania.
An organization that, to this day, idolizes King with celebrations, the Quakers nominated the slain Civil Rights leader for the Nobel Peace Prize based on a letter dated Jan. 31, 1963.
On Jan. 30, 1964—one year later—eight members of the Swedish Parliament gave a second nomination that sealed King’s place in history.
The organization—the Norwegian Nobel Committee—has awarded the prize since 1901, and it followed its policy of revealing these details 50 years after the honor has been bestowed. Details are outlined on the Nobel Peace Prize’s website: www.nobelprize.org
For the first time, the committee released their video of King’s acceptance speech before a packed hall of dignitaries.
The new revelations help tell a fascinating story of King’s relationship with the Quakers and how both sides influenced each other.
In addition to the Quakers, the Norwegian Nobel Committee also regarded King very highly and picked him from a vast pool of 43 candidates, who included royalty, presidents and heads of state: Haile Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia; the Shah of Iran; Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi; and William V.S. Tubman, president of Liberia.
According to the website, King was “by far the strongest candidate” because he led a powerful mass movement with non-violent methods. He was also a strong contender because he was Black and not a head of state. The award was announced on Oct. 14, 1964 and presented to King at Oslo University in Oslo, Norway on Dec. 10, 1964.
King could have received the award in 1963, but the nomination may have been too late for that year, according to the website. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) a Quaker organization that nominated King—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.
The AFSC’s nomination letter barely arrived in time to be considered in 1963, but “for some reason, the nomination was transferred to the following year.” A note on the letter says, “Reserved for 1964.” The website noted that it was possible that the committee considered King’s nomination to be too late to be considered for the1963 ballot.
King’s nomination letter reads, “African leaders, who are perhaps most aware of racial tensions, are in several striking cases seeking to create a spirit of reconciliation and to use methods that will not increase the likelihood of violence. These leaders have been influenced and are being encouraged by the example of MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr., whose work to resolve serious conflicts without violence is also helping to reduce in the United States the indiscriminate bitterness that condemns international organization, and in particular the United Nations, because of the participation of people of non-white races and of the concern to promote ‘the dignity and worth of the human person’ regardless of race.”
The Quakers, also known to many as the Society of Friends, continue to have a strong presence in the city of Philadelphia. Many Quakers are influential and affluent members of Philadelphia.
In addition to historical sites that attract thousands of tourists annually, the Quakers remain passionate about King and his message. Quaker schools observe the King Holiday annually, and they have their own King Center for Non-violence, like the original in Atlanta. One can find out about King’s connections with the Quakers on many websites about the Quakers.
On one website, King is mentioned in the same context as Penn—a Quaker who founded Pennsylvania after King Charles II gave him land that became one of the original 13 states or colonies.
Nicknamed the “Great Hero of American Liberty,” Penn attacked religious intolerance and defended Quakers who were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics. Like King, he was jailed for speaking out against hate crimes. One document says Penn once owned slaves, but gave them up after becoming a Quaker.
Millions of Americans know Penn as the white-haired “Quaker Man” on Quaker Oats’ ubiquitous oatmeal container boxes. The company says it has used Penn’s likeness because his Quaker faith represents “honesty, integrity, purity and strength.”
As it turned out, King had many connections with the Quakers during the 50s and 60s according to documents from the organization. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, King urged the AFCS to join the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
After its Yearly Peace Committee meeting, the Quaker organization sent two members to Montgomery where they were impressed by King’s leadership and his peace efforts. Years later, the Quakers arranged King’s historic trip to India, where he and his wife, Coretta, would visit places associated with another famous peace leader, Mahatma Gandhi.
Jack Sutters, a former AFSC historian, stated the organization also published and widely distributed King’s famous, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which he wrote after he was imprisoned for leading a nonviolent demonstration in 1963.
One member of the AFSC said King and the Civil Rights Movement played “a big role in the AFSC’s evolving understanding of non-violence.” In addition to war, Quakers used King’s message of peace to include the roots of violence, which are injustice, poverty and oppression.