True Peace Is Not Merely the Absence of Tension; It Is the Presence of Justice

Martin Luther King? Elizabeth Tipton Derieux? Alton Hawkins? United Presbyterian Church? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A political activist once stated something like the following: Peace is more than the absence of conflict and tension. Genuine peace requires the presence of justice. This notion has been attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A match for this expression appeared in the 1964 collection “A Martin Luther King Treasury” within a chapter titled “Montgomery Before the Protest”. King described a conversation during which he employed the following line circa 1954-1955. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematic match occurred in a letter to the editor of “The Bergen Evening Record” of Hackensack, New Jersey published in 1938 from a person using the initials F. O. E.: 2

We have conflict within and fears without but no armed warfare with any other state. But peace is more than absence of armed conflict. Men may fight with their naked fists, with violent words, and by strategy and coups and chicanery. The main cause of conflict is a sense of injustice.

Another thematic match occurred in 1944 within an article by Elizabeth Tipton Derieux printed in “The News and Observer” of Raleigh, North Carolina: 3

Tomorrow’s peace must be more than the absence of armed conflict. It must be just, creative and cooperative. The weak must be protected from exploitation, the brutal strong curbed, and a sympathetic appreciation developed for the races of mankind.

King used the expression under analysis during a conversation circa 1954-1955 as mentioned previously.

In 1957 King employed an instance during a speech reported in the “Alabama Tribune” of Montgomery, Alabama: 4

I come not to bring this old peace which is merely the absence of tension; I come to bring a positive peace which is the presence of justice and the Kingdom of God. Peace is not merely the absence of something. but it’s the presence of something.

In 1963 a columnist in “The Windsor Star” of Windsor, Ontario, Canada presented a version of the saying with an anonymous attribution: 5

One shrewd comment notes: “Peace is not the absence of violence, it is the presence of justice.”

In 1964 Whitney M Young Jr. executive director of the National Urban League employed a variant: 6

Good race relations, he told the assembly, is “not the absence of conflict, tensions, or even riots”

“It is the presence of justice and equal opportunity to share in the rewards as well as the opportunities of a truly great society.”

In 1969 a newspaper in Columbus, Indiana printed the following brief statement of prayer from Reverend Alton Hawkins of the Asbury United Methodist church: 7

. . . we celebrate the peace you offer to all men; a peace that is more than the absence of armed conflict and broader than “peace of mind” or “peace of soul” — a peace that is marked by joy, social harmony, exalted justice and worship.

In 1981 a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate met to discuss the establishment of a U.S. Academy of Peace. When the transcript of the meeting was published it included an addendum with a variety of documents. One document listed a statement that had been formally adopted at the 193rd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church held in Texas in 1981. This was one of the part of the statement: 8

Whereas the desire for peace is not sufficient. Peace must be more than an absence of conflict — peace must be the presence of justice

In conclusion, Martin Luther King Jr. deserves credit for the statement in the 1964 book “A Martin Luther King Treasury”. King delivered the line in conversation circa 1954-1955, and he used a similar line during a speech in 1957. Thematic precursors appeared in 1938 and 1944.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a peace dove from Clker-Free-Vector-Images. The image has been resized and framed.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Pfeiffer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to scholar Drew Dellinger who told QI the phrasing that King used in “A Martin Luther King Treasury”. Dellinger also pointed out that King used the saying a few times with slightly different variations.)

Notes:

  1. 1964, A Martin Luther King Treasury by Martin Luther King Jr., Chapter 2: Montgomery Before the Protest, Quote Page 30, Published Educational Heritage, Yonkers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1938 September 17, The Bergen Evening Record, Section: Voice of the People Forum, Letter to the Editor, Letter Title: Democracy, Letter From: F. O. E., Letter Location: Park Ridge, Letter Date: September 15, 1938, Quote Page 12, Column 1, Hackensack, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1944 October 1, The News and Observer, The Christian Church In Tomorrow’s World by Elizabeth Tipton Derieux, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1957 April 26, Alabama Tribune, Noted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Urges Realistic Look At Race Relations Progress, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1963 August 31, The Windsor Star, As We See It by W. L. Clark, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1964 December 10, The Miami Herald, New Negro Aim: ‘A Little More Money in Pocket’ by Phil Meyer (Washington Bureau), Quote Page 14D, Column 1, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1969 September 12, The Republic, Today’s Prayer, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1982, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources United States Senate, Ninety-Seventh Congress, Second Session on S.1889, United States Academy of Peace Act, Letter From: The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Letter Date: April 27, 1982, Statement From: The National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution, Quote Page 244, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link