Decades later, a secret finally revealed

Who nominated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize? It’s a story you’ll find hard to believe.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

King’s 1963 Nomination Letter
King’s 1963 Nomination Letter

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:

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.

AFRICAKing’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.



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  1. This unusual article appears to suggest that Quakers are/were an obscure and mysterious sect who got together and secretly nominated a famous and inspiring activist for the Nobel Peace prize. AFSC is a national committee, supported by numerous Friends Meetings and individuals, whose headquarters happen to be in Philadelphia. Their service work takes place in many countries around the world as well as in the US, and the committee itself has received the Nobel Peace prize for its work feeding victims of war in Europe. The committee is not what the article seems to suggest – a tight knit organization of white religious residents in Philadelphia. Quakers are white, black, and from many other cultural backgrounds. And there are at least 10 Quaker meetings in the Chicago area alone. We invite you to learn more about us at

  2. I appreciate SM’s comments above. They all square with my experience as a Friend (Quaker) for all of my adult life and a retired employee of the AFSC. The author of this article has waved the drama flag, but has neglected the research that such an article would indicate. One more important fact. Nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize may be made by a limited group of people as follows:
    • Members of national assemblies and governments of states
    • Members of international courts
    • University rectors; professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology; directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes
    • Persons who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
    • Board members of organizations that have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
    • Active and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; (proposals by members of the Committee to be submitted no later than at the first meeting of the Committee after February 1)
    • Former advisers to the Norwegian Nobel Committee
    The article is not one that I will share.

  3. It’s really weird not to see Bayard Rustin mentioned in an article about Martin Luther King Jr and Quakers. He’s the Black gay socialist Quaker who convinced MLK to take up non-violent protest (after meeting Gandhi). He was the chief organizer for the March on Washington. Mostly he worked behind the scenes, because being an out gay man made him a liability to the movement.

  4. This article starts in a very strange and incorrect way. First off, none of those people COULD have nominated them as only past honorees can make nominations. How were you not aware of this while wrong about the Prize? Second, in fact, it WAS a pair of Quakers who worked with King and knew him well who also worked with the AFSC and influenced the nomination; Fran and Cecil Thomas. They can be found in Edythe Scott Bagley’s book (Coretta Scott King’s sister).

  5. I carry in my wallet a picture of Cecil Thomas–a mug shot from Jackson, Mississippi Police
    Department–smiling calmly and beautifully right at you. A true heart has no fear!
    Date: 7-24-61. I met Cecil in 1957 and was transformed for life.


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