A turning point for Dr. King, and our nation

Todd Steven Burroughs
January 17, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr.In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., sat amid a flurry of changes that would radically alter the nation. In July, President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law and begin The War on Poverty. With little time to rest from the victory for African-Americans that would eventually expand opportunities to all marginalized groups in the nation – King received a call that would not only significantly change his view for the struggle for full citizenship but expand his struggle from domestic to international and from American to a world view.

The day before he received the call that would change his vision on civil rights, Martin Luther King was, in the words of his wife Coretta, “completely exhausted, tired and empty.” His doctor found him suffering from high blood pressure, a virus and being overweight by 20 pounds. King was in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., in early October 1964 trying to rest.

His schedule hadn’t decreased since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, but had increased. The nonviolent, direct action campaign waged in 1963 by the King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (with added support from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League) had borne fruit. King was in great demand in 1964—in St. Augustine, Florida, for example, where the SCLC was lending support to local activists fighting racial segregation and the white mob violence that almost always accompanied resistance to Jim Crow.

So when the call from Norway came to the King house, Coretta had to wake him up on the hospital phone with the news. King's biographer David Garrow wrote that the Nobel Peace Prize announcement both disturbed his rest and buoyed his spirits. The Nobel Peace Prize creates world leaders for peace out of activists of obscurity. The awarding of it—even the publicly whispered nomination of it—draws attention to groups and individuals seemingly on the margins of their societies. With the one call, they join the world community as public figures. And so it was with Martin Luther King. “It was a great tribute, but an even more awesome burden,” Coretta recalled. King said to reporters at the hospital: “History has thrust me into this position. It would be both immoral and a sign of ingratitude if I did not face my moral responsibility to do what I can in the struggle.”

King accepted the award in Oslo in December 1964. The year began with King being named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year,” but this honor was much more than a world bookend to that national honor.

“I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death,” he said. “I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.”

He said he thought the award was the ultimate validation of nonviolence as a “powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.” That nonviolent movement, narrated King in his speech, “led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.”

King always identified three evils—racism, militarism and economic exploitation, so it comes as no surprise that he said in his acceptance speech what would echo, just three years later, into his view on Vietnam: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.”


The prize thrust him into many new decisions, new priorities. To Coretta’s consternation, he gave up the $54,000 that came with the award, dividing it up between SCLC, SNCC, NAACP and the National Urban League. (This is one of the reasons that King died with no savings for his family.) His calls for economic justice were beginning to be heard.

King had to shift his responsibility from being a leader of a domestic American civil rights movement of racial minorities to being a world leader. This meant he had to apply his evil triplicate to the rights of the people in Vietnam. He criticized America, calling it the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

These kinds of statements made King enemies in both President Lyndon Johnson and among his civil rights allies. King died a very maligned and unpopular man when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.

When he heard he had received the Nobel Peace Prize, King finally had to give up his post-Movement dreams. All of King’s biographers mention that King never wanted to be a civil rights leader. His original goal was to be a pastor at his church in Montgomery, Ala., for a few years, then join his undergraduate alma mater, Morehouse College, as a professor and, ultimately, work his way up to becoming Morehouse’s president. In the meantime, he would quietly raise his family, enjoying his roles of husband and father. First the Movement, and then the Nobel, had destroyed all of those plans, the Nobel being, almost literally, the final nail on his forthcoming coffin four years later. Garrow wrote: “The prize might mean there would never be any respite, never any retreat to a quiet pastorship or seminary professorship.” In the end that’s exactly what it did mean.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, were the beginning of the end of blatant, legalized racism. While other movements would challenge inequities in the following decades, America has yet to end racism or any other “ism.”

Fifty years later, as Everyday Democracy celebrates its 25th year of existence, the urgency for eliminating the smear of racism from our American democracy remains a worthy challenge.

It’s a challenge that Everyday Democracy and countless others working in their communities to create positive change are committed to overcoming.


Read King’s entire Nobel speech here.


Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is the co-editor, with Jared Ball, of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of “Civil Rights: Yesterday and Today.” He has taught at Morgan State University and Howard University. He is currently working on a monograph of Gil Noble and WABC-TV’s “Like It Is” and a journalistic biography of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. His popular culture blog is and his email address is


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