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A. N. Whitehead’s Influence on Martin Luther King Jr.

By Brian G. Henning, Executive Editor, Critical Edition of Whitehead[1]

Dr. King delivering his acceptance speech at the the University of Oslo, 1964. Source: Nobel Prize.org

It is not yet widely known that Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. In honor of Martin Luther King day 2022, we thought we’d share what we’ve learned about this unexpected connection.

One of 60 handwritten index cards created by King for his research. Source: King Center Archives

I first learned of the connection between Alfred North Whitehead and Martin Luther King Jr. in July of 2013 from John Quiring, who was then working at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, CA. Quiring had stumbled upon scans of index cards written by King wherein he included quotes from and notes on Whitehead’s Concept of Nature. A more comprehensive search revealed additional connections that were not previously known or appreciated.

Nobel Peace Prize Lecture

Perhaps one of the most remarkable pieces of evidence we have that King was influenced by Whitehead comes in the context of King’s receiving of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. King delivered his Nobel acceptance speech on Thursday, 10 December 1964.

The following day, Friday, 11 December 1964, King delivered this his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, “The quest for peace and justice.” It is here that we find King quoting Whitehead. (Here you can listen to the recording of King speaking these paragraphs.)

The first problem that I would like to mention is racial injustice. The struggle to eliminate the evil of racial injustice constitutes one of the major struggles of our time. The present upsurge of the Negro people of the United States grows out of a deep and passionate determination to make freedom and equality a reality “here” and “now.” In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development.

We live in a day, says the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “when civilization is shifting its basic outlook: a major turning point in history where the presuppositions on which society is structured are being analyzed, sharply challenged, and profoundly changed.”[2] What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion, the realization of “an idea whose time has come,” to use Victor Hugo’s phrase. The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses, rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom, in one majestic chorus the rising masses singing, in the words of our freedom song, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.” All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land. They are awake and moving toward their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village street, on the docks, in the houses, among the students, in the churches, and at political meetings. Historic movement was for several centuries that of the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in “conquest” of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism, is at an end. East is meeting West. The earth is being redistributed. Yes, we are “shifting our basic outlooks.”  [Read the full Lecture here or listen to it  here.]

Boston University Doctoral Studies

Given such a prominent reference to Whitehead in his Nobel Lecture, one might rightly wonder how King came to be familiar with Whitehead’s work. It is not entirely clear, but it seems plausible that King developed his interest in Whitehead’s philosophy starting in 1951 during his doctoral studies at Boston University under the direction of Edgar Brightman, who was himself a frequent correspondent of Charles Hartshorne.[3]

Harvard University Course Audit

During his second year of his doctoral studies (1952-1953), King audited two courses at Harvard University as “special student.” The first was on Plato and the second was “PHIL 134: The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.” Our Assistant Editor, Joseph Petek, subsequently discovered that the Whitehead course at Harvard was taught by Nathaniel Morris Lawrence, who wrote three books on Whitehead: Single Location, Simple Location, and Misplaced Concreteness, Whitehead’s philosophical development: A critical history of the background of Process and Reality, and Alfred North Whitehead: A Primer of his Philosophy. The King papers at Stanford contain King’s notes for the class, an essay he wrote for it with Lawrence’s comments, and a page of final exam questions. King’s academic record reveals that he received an A- in the class.

Doctoral Dissertation

King began his doctoral dissertation the following year (1953-1954) on A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. A search of his dissertation finds King quoting or referencing Whitehead’s work in three different chapters.

From Chapter III, “Tillich’s Conception of God”:

Individualization is a quality of everything that exists; “it is implied in and constitutive of every self, which means that at least in an analogous way it is implied in and constitutive of every being.”\[Footnote:] Tillich, ST, I, 175.\16 To be a self is to be an individual. Selfhood and individualization may be different conceptually, but they are inseparable actually.\[Footnote:] Tillich, ST, I, 175.\17 To be is to be an individual. But man’s individualization is not absolute or complete. It gains meaning only in its polar relation with participation. Leibniz emphasizes this point when he speaks of the microcosmic structure of the monad.\[Footnote:] Leibniz, Monadology, par. 62.\ Whitehead sets it forth when he speaks of the “prehension” of the whole by the actual occasion.\[Footnote:] Whitehead, AOI, 300.\ Martin Buber emphasizes this role of participation in the process of individualization when he sets forth the role of the “thou” in the development of the “I.”18 Each of these thinkers gives backing to what Tillich is attempting to say, namely, that individuation implies participation. Man participates in the universe through the rational structure of mind and reality. When individualization reaches the perfect form we call a “person,” participation reaches the perfect form we call “communion.” Persons become persons only by participating in society. It is only in the communion of personal encounter that persons can grow. Participation is essential for the individual.19 “Without individualization nothing would exist to be related. Without participation the category of relation would have no basis in reality.”\[Footnote:] Tillich, ST, I, 177.\

Footnote 18. Boozer, “Place of Reason,” p. 244: “But man’s individualization is not absolute or complete. The element of participation is in polar relation with individualization. Leibniz speaks of the microcosmic structure of the monad. Whitehead speaks of the ‘prehension’ of the whole by the actual occasion. Both indicate the element of participation. Martin Buber emphasizes the role of the ‘thou’ in the development of the ‘I.’”

From Chapter IV, “Wieman’s Conception of God”:

1. The nature of God

Wieman contends that it has been his purpose “so to formulate the idea of God that the question of God’s existence becomes a dead issue.”\[Footnote:] Wieman, Art. (1932)3, 276.\ To accomplish this he has offered as a “minimal” definition of God the following: “God is that something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare, and increasing abundance … that something of supreme value which constitutes the most important condition.”\[Footnote:] Wieman, RESM, 9\2 But Wieman has developed this minimal definition in various ways. At one point in his intellectual pilgrimage he suggested that God as so defined is “that interaction between individuals, groups, and ages which generates and promotes the greatest mutuality of good … the richest possible body of shared experience.”\[Footnote:] This definition suggests Dewey’s “religion of shared experience.”\ In another volume he speaks of God as “that interaction which sustains and magnifies personality … the process of progressive integration”;\[Footnote:] Wieman, Art. (1932)1, 351.\ while in another place he undertakes to defend Whitehead’s view of God as “the principle of concretion.”\[Footnote:] Wieman, WTR, 179–212.\3 In his most mature work, The Source of Human Good, Wieman defines God as the “creative event.” He feels that this latter definition most adequately expresses the nature of God. …

Wieman’s naturalistic position also leads him to affirm that all things are “somewhere,” and “somewhere” refers to events. There are no events without structures, and there are no structures or forms existing or subsisting apart from events.\[Footnote:] Whitehead calls this the “ontological principle.”\ There is no disembodied or nonincarnate order as Logos. …

Wieman is quite emphatic on the point that the limits of knowledge are defined by the limits of the experienceable, and the limits of the experienceable are defined by the limits of relationships. What we are not related to we cannot experience. What is unrelated to us is unknowable, and the unknowable is unknown. “Nature” comprises the experienceable. Therefore, in this case by definition, a purely transcendental or noumenal realm is regarded as unknown and superfluous. Everything that exists has the power either to affect other things or to be affected by them.\[Footnote:] Wieman is following Whitehead at this point. In Whitehead’s system, every event is first of all affected by past events and then, subsequently, affects other future events.\ …

i. Evil as destructive of good

We have seen that Wieman follows Whitehead in defining God as “the principle of concretion.”\[Footnote:] Wieman, WRT, 182.\ On the basis of this definition evil is that which is destructive of concrete existence. It is anything that hinders the prehensive\[Footnote:] In the terminology of A. N. Whitehead, prehension is the process of feeling whereby data are grasped or prehended by a subject. See Process and Reality, Part III.\ capacity of any particular thing.96

Footnote 3. Martin, Empirical Philosophies of Religion, p. 102: “But he has developed these ‘minimal’ definitions in various ways. At one point in his intellectual pilgrimage he suggested that God as so defined is ‘that interaction between individuals, groups, and ages which generates and promotes the greatest mutuality of good … the richest possible body of shared experience’, a definition suggesting Dewey’s ‘religion of shared experience’. In another volume he speaks of God as ‘that interaction which sustains and magnifies personality … the process of progressive integration’; while in another place he undertook to defend Whitehead’s view of God as ‘the principle of concretion’.

Footnote 5. Wieman, “Authority and the Normative Approach,” p. 190: “Some call it the ‘principle of concretion’ (Whitehead); ‘the progression of emergents’ (Morgan, Alexander, Calhoun); ‘holistic evolution’ (Smuts); … ‘a thrust toward concentration, organization, and life’ (Montague); … ‘the value-actualizing function of human imagination within the total cosmic-social matrix that sustains it’ (Dewey).

From Chapter V, the dissertation’s penultimate chapter, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman”:

Wieman’s stress is on the temporality of God rather than the eternality. Indeed his idea of God has been referred to as “extreme temporalistic theism.”\[Footnote:] See Hartshorne’s and Reese’s chapter on Wieman in PSG, 395–408.\ His very definitions of God—“growth,” “creative event” and “process”—point to something that is temporal and passing rather than eternal. An event or a process of growth is neither a continuing entity nor a persistent reality. It is something forever in a state of becoming. It is quite apparent that Wieman’s characterization of God as “process” or “creative event” is due to his desire to abandon the scholastic notion of substantial being. Like Whitehead, he has preference for dynamic terminology. He seeks to stress the activity of God as against a static ens necessarium, absolute Being.36 So, unlike Tillich, Wieman is so determined to make God a temporal reality that he almost completely overlooks his eternity.

Footnote 36. Robert Lowry Calhoun, “God as More than Mind,” Christendom 1, no. 2 (Winter 1936): 344–345: “I welcome the evident values of this preference for ‘dynamic’ terminology which Wieman shares with Mead, Dewey, and Whitehead.… But with whatever gain there may be in their declaration of independence from the scholastic notion of substantial being, there is danger of a serious loss of precision.… These are terms which Wieman employs to signalize the actuality of God as against abstract form or ideal, and the activity of God as against a static ens necessarium, absolute Being.

King successfully defended his dissertation in the spring of 1955. Two years later, in December of 1957, we also find King referencing Whitehead in the second of two addresses during the annual meeting of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. called “The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations, Address Delivered at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches”:

Now I am aware of the fact that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for togetherness, whether we call it a principle of concretion as in Whitehead, a process of integration as Henry Nelson Wieman, Being Itself as Paul Tillich, an impersonal Brahma as Hinduism, or a personal being of boundless power and infinite love. We must believe that there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. There is a creative power that works to bring low gigantic mountains of evil and pull down prodigious hilltops of injustice. This is the faith that keeps the nonviolent resister going through all of the tension and suffering that he must inevitably confront.”

But exactly what did King read of Whitehead’s ouvre and what grabbed his attention? Here the King Center archives are quite remarkable.[4] There we find 60 handwritten index cards on which King had taken detailed notes on Whitehead’s ideas (see examples below). At times he is summarizing and other times recording quotes from works as diverse as Concept of Nature, Religion in the Making, Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, and Adventures of Ideas. Headings on some of the index cards include: “actual occasion,” “eternal objects”, “God,” “Ind and Participation,” “Method of Ex Abstraction,” “Problems of Whitehead,” “The Scope of Philosophy,” “The Theory of Perception in the Light of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” “Truth,” and “Wh’s doctrine of Freedom.”

In sum, it is clear that Martin Luther King, Jr. was quite familiar with and, to at least some degree, influenced by his reading of the work of Alfred North Whitehead.

Note: You can find a little more information on Whitehead and MLK in our follow-up blog on Raphael Demos.


[1] Sincere thanks go to Dr. Joseph Petek, who was a great help in pulling together some of the research for this research blog, especially tracking down more information about King’s time at Harvard.

[2] The version of the Lecture presented by the Nobel Prize Committee (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/lecture/) does not reflect any citations for quotations listed in the Lecture. Efforts to locate the source of King’s quotation of Whitehead were unsuccessful. It is possible that those who transcribed the oral speech mistakenly added the quotation marks for what is more likely a paraphrase, perhaps from Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas.

[3] See Randall E. Auxier, Hartshorne and Brightman on God, Process, and Persons: The Correspondence, 1922-1945 (Vanderbilt University Press 2001).

[4] Since our original searches in 2013, the King Center archives are no longer accessible remotely via the internet.

10 thoughts on “A. N. Whitehead’s Influence on Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Fascinating, and beautifully done, Brian (and Joe)! A wonderful tribute on M.L. King day. My own grad-school teacher, Walter Muelder, was (retired) Dean of the BU School of Theology, and a close mentor of Dr. King as he completed his doctoral studies at BUST. He, too (like most of the faculty) was an avid reader of Whitehead. It would have been hard to study in Boston during that time and not be directed toward Whitehead’s philosophy. Those copiously-copied index cards bear witness to the encouragement Rev. King would have received to explore process philosophy and theology in the course of completing his dissertation.

  2. Uplifting for me to see that Whitehead’s reality was used, and continues to throb into the veins of an America that is progressing toward civilization. Thanks for the research that brings this to light.

  3. When I wanted to study Whitehead in 2008 I went to the Boston University School of Theology. I knew MLK had written his dissertation on Weiman and Tillich, but I had not read it, and it’s just wonderful that he had such a deep understanding of Whitehead. This great quote that sums up the real influence of the process way of thinking: “There is a creative power that works to bring low gigantic mountains of evil and pull down prodigious hilltops of injustice. This is the faith that keeps the nonviolent resister going through all of the tension and suffering that he must inevitably confront.”

  4. Thank you for uncovering and sharing these fascinating connections. I am preparing a Lenten study on a new book, “Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr.” written by Marc Andrus, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of California. He explores the philosophical roots of the concept of Beloved Community in the writings of Josiah Royce and speculates about how King may have learned about it at BU. However, his primary influence was Howard Thurman who had learned of the concept from A.J. Muste who built on Royce’s work. Muste was part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation through which he introduced King and Nhat Hanh. Andrus does not note the connection with Whitehead whose metaphysical analysis supports the interrelationality (what Nhat Hanh often calls inter-being) that is at the heart of both King and Nhat Hanh’s deep understanding of Beloved Community. King introduced Nhat Hanh to the concept of Beloved Community at their last meeting before he was killed. Learning of his death, Nhat Hanh vowed that day to carry on the unfolding of the work of Beloved Community in his own life and teaching. I kept feeling the resonance with Whitehead’s metaphysics as I read the book. I’m very grateful to have this confirmation of his influence on King. It will deepen our discussion of the book.

  5. Dear Brian,
    This is a fascinating connection you have uncovered between MLK and Whitehead. Thank you for your excellent work without which it might have remained hidden.

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