Pauling’s Contacts with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Linus Pauling is recognized as one of the greatest peace activists of the 20th century. From the end of World War II until his death in 1994, Pauling was a central figure in the fight for nuclear disarmament and a great proponent of human rights. Though his primary focus was international peace and weapons reduction, he was a strong supporter of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Unsurprisingly, his political activities brought him in close contact with some of history’s greatest activists. In honor of today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday anniversary, the Pauling Blog would like to discuss Pauling’s connection with King in the struggle for peace.

Pauling and King first met in 1960 while King was in Pasadena lecturing on racial equality. By the late 1950s, King had firmly established himself as a civil rights leader in the African American community through his organization of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1957 founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Pauling had witnessed King’s work in the southern U.S., and was much impressed with the energetic young man. Despite Pauling’s personal rejection of religion, a core value for King, the two men developed a mutual respect for one another, working in the parallel fields of civil rights and international peace, and often intersected at moments critical to the peace movement.

In late 1960, Pauling contacted King, requesting his support for a conference opposing the distribution of nuclear arms to the United States’ NATO allies. King responded promptly, emphasizing his belief in Pauling’s work. He noted that he could not attend the conference himself, but wrote “Always know, however, that you have my absolute support”.

In 1964, King wrote another letter to Pauling, congratulating him for his receipt of Temple Beth Zion’s Annual Passover-Liberty Award. In particular, King remarked that

This award, like many others that you have received, is indicative of the great respect and admiration that men of good will have for you for your brilliant and untiring efforts to make world peace a reality. I can think of no one who more justly deserves such significant honors. Your work and the use of your brilliant mind for such creative ends will stand out as one of the significant epics of the twentieth century. Your deep humanitarian concern, genuine good will, and your unswerving devotion to the cause of peace and justice will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.

The two men, though not close friends, were characterized by a number of striking similarities that no doubt provoked a certain kinship between them. Both men were academics, with Pauling having taken a doctorate in chemistry from Caltech and King a doctorate in Philosophy from Boston University. Both were well-read, highly-educated and known for their powerful public speeches.  And interestingly, neither Pauling nor King ever graduated from high school, despite being bright and capable students.

Likewise, both men fought against, and were persecuted by, the U.S. government and the mainstream American press. Throughout their respective careers, both men were dogged by accusations of Communism. Pauling was directly accused of Communist activity, while King’s advisers, Stanley Levison and Hunter Pitts O’Dell, were linked to the Communist party through House Un-American Activities Committee investigations and FBI informants. Neither man gave into the popular pressure, however, a shared stubborn resistance that partly explains their historical fame as activists.

In 1964 Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, only two years after Pauling himself had received the award. In a letter to Gunnar Jahn, a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Linus noted that “We are very happy, as I am sure you are, that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964 to Martin Luther King has been received with such great approval. I was especially pleased that the people of Oslo were so enthusiastic, as reported in Time and Newsweek, and in the American newspapers, also.”

Linus Pauling was not the only member of the Pauling family engaged in King’s work. His oldest son, Linus, Jr., was also much impressed by the civil rights movement. On March 25, 1965, Linus, Jr. joined other activists in a four day march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital of Montgomery. Linus, Jr., a licensed physician, provided medical care to other marchers along the way, and was even pictured in a Newsweek article chronicling the event.

It goes without saying that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has had a profound effect on the social, cultural and political landscape of the modern United States. His words and actions have served as a catalyst for some of the largest social changes that have occurred in the last fifty years, many of which are still, of course, in progress. Linus Pauling was proud to have been a part of these changes, and to have served to better the lives of those around him.

For more information on Linus Pauling and the Peace Movement, please visit our documentary history website.  Documents on that site that are relevant to Pauling’s relationship with Dr. King are as follows:

“Notice of Candidacy for the Electoral College.” 1964.

Note from Linus Pauling to Martin Luther King, Jr. March 18, 1965.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Martin Luther King, Jr. June 21, 1965.

“An Appeal by Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.” 1965.

“Note to Self.” May 2, 1967.

One Response

  1. […] we wrote at this time last year, Linus Pauling and Martin Luther King, Jr. had occasion to come into sporadic contact as they […]

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