Having earned both a divinity degree and a doctorate in systematic theology, Dr. King often turned to various religious texts and practices to guide his actions and words throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
As a Christian, Dr. King regularly brought the teachings of Jesus and the words of Scripture into his work. Promoting peace and justice for all of God’s children and treating others with fairness and respect were pillars of Dr. King’s philosophy on race relations in the United States.
Beyond just words, peace took action under Dr. King’s leadership. The Civil Rights Movement could have been vastly different had nonviolence not played such a crucial role. The idea behind the Movement’s nonviolent resistance came from Dr. King’s study of and appreciation for Mahatma Gandhi. In 1959, King even traveled to India to gain a deeper understanding of Gandhi’s peaceful quest for freedom.
One of the first times that non-violent resistance came into play was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Reflecting on the boycott, Dr. King published the book Stride Toward Freedom. In the book, particularly in chapter six “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, Gandhi’s effect on Dr. King and the Movement is explained:
Gandhi 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 on a large scale. Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months … I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
Dr. King continued to explain that, as the Bus Boycott unfolded and protest became the only course of action, he felt that “nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life.”
Nobel Prize for Peace 1964
Dr. King’s approach to peaceful protest and nonviolent resistance was working – and the world took notice. In 1964, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. King.
During the presentation of the prize, the committee chairman Gunnar Jahn praised Dr. King, saying, “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.”
In accepting the Prize, Dr. King delivered a lecture on the topic of “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” His speech detailed not only his quest for racial justice and peace in the United States, but for a larger, global peace.
World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable. All other methods have failed. Thus we must begin anew. Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built.
A Legacy of Peace
As the 1960s moved forward, in moments of great turmoil and great progress, the message of peace was always present. Whether from racial tensions and unrest at home, or the devastating Vietnam War abroad, which he opposed and spoke against in 1967, peace found its way into the nation’s cultural conversation.
Dr. King paved the way for peaceful protests that have found success over time, and even in the present day. His commitment to nonviolence, practical discussion, and compromise has contributed to countless human rights efforts.
Despite the violent and tragic death he faced in 1968, his message of peace has stood the test of time.