When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at age 35, he was the youngest person to ever be presented the prestigious honor. He was the third Black recipient and the second African American, following Ralph Bunche, the famed political scientist and diplomat who was honored for his mediation work in Palestine.

Besides the personal honor, though, historians said the award gave credence to his approach of meeting violence with peaceful resistance.

In a story that ran on the front page of the AFRO on Oct. 24, 1964, King called the award “vindication” for his work. The story was written by reporter James D. Williams after he interviewed King in an Atlanta hospital where he had checked in for a physical and rest.

“This has given me new courage to carry on and I am convinced that is more than an honor to me personally, but a great tribute to the colored people,” King told Williams.”

He was 35 when he received the prize in a ceremony in December 1964 at Oslo University in Norway. According to a UPI story that ran on the front page of the AFRO on Dec. 19, 1964, he was selected “for championing the principle of non-violence in the struggle to achieve racial equality.” King was presented a diploma, a gold medal and a check for $54,600.

In his acceptance speech, King called the award “profound recognition that non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time—the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

“The thousands of gallant unarmed men and women (civil rights workers) have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of Democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” King said in the story that appeared in the AFRO.

“One day, all of America will be proud of their achievements.”

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on Jan. 15, 1929 to a prominent family. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr. was pastor of the prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. From an early age, King demonstrated strong oratorical skills. He attended Morehouse University and later earned a doctorate from Crozier Theological Seminary in Boston, where he met his future wife, Coretta.

King was a young preacher and father in 1955 when he became the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The success of the boycott, which ended with city leaders desegregating the city’s public buses after Blacks refused to ride them for a year, solidified for King that peaceful protest was the most effective way to forge change.

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, violence against Blacks became bloody and frequent in the South. Blacks who attempted to register to vote—and those who attempted to help them—were beaten, jailed, threatened with violence and sometimes killed. Marchers participating in peaceful protests against segregation, unequal education and discrimination in jobs watched as police officers used attack dogs and hoses against them. As some Blacks questioned the sense of allowing racists to constantly victimize them for standing up for right, King urged them to continue to be peaceful.

Even in bloody 1963, when, according to the Civil Rights Veterans website “white racists murder [10] people and commit at least 35 bombings,” King urged Blacks and their supporters to remain committed to non-violence. The year’s atrocities included the ambush attack on NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson home in June and the savage bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September, where four little girls were killed.

As the violence escalated, King stayed the course. His “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” drew hundreds of thousands in August 1963 who were motivated by his dream of freedom. His appearances at churches were filled to capacity. His message was always the same—fight hate with love, violence with peace. By the time he was assassinated in 1968, King’s place in history was solidified as the American who had fought hardest against oppression using no weapons.

Though he was proud of the achievement of winning the Nobel, King told the AFRO in October 1964 that it signaled that there was more work to be done.

“The prize makes me want to do a better job,” King said.”It leave me with a great sense of humility. It arouses in me the feeling that in spite of this type of tribute, there is much more to be done.”

While he is no longer the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, he still remains the youngest Black person to achieve the honor. In 1992, Guatemalan civil rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who was 33, was awarded the prize.

She also became the first indigenous person to win the award.


Zachary Lester

AFRO Staff Writer