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Nelson, William Stuart

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October 15, 1895 to March 26, 1977

An internationally known expert on nonviolence, William Stuart Nelson corresponded regularly with Martin Luther King. When Nelson sent him his 1958 article “Satyagraha: Gandhian Principles of Non-Violent Non-Cooperation,” King wrote that it was “one of the best and most balanced analyses of the Gandhian principles of nonviolent, noncooperation that I have read” (King, 18 August 1958).

Nelson was born in Paris, Kentucky, in 1895. He served in World War I and went on to receive his BA from Howard University in 1920. After attending schools in France and Germany, he received a BD from Yale (1924) and returned to Howard to teach. In 1931 he became the first black president of Shaw University and, later, the first president of Dillard University. He finished his career at Howard, serving as dean of the School of Religion from 1940 to 1948, dean of the university from 1948 to 1961, and vice president of special projects from 1961 to 1967.

Nelson made several trips to India. In 1946, while visiting as a representative of the American Friends Service Committee, he marched with Gandhi through Bengal in an effort to help reconcile the Hindu and Muslim communities. He returned to India in 1958 as a Fulbright scholar, but could not stay long enough to accompany King on his trip there in 1959. After King returned home, Nelson wrote that what he had “done in America is proving a source of great encouragement to and re-awakening of people in India, and is thereby serving the cause of non-violence in the very country which has witnessed its most significant demonstration” (Nelson, 10 April 1959).

Nelson was active throughout the civil rights movement, speaking at the 1959 Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change and the 1962 convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and joining the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. He remained a member of various peace, religious, and educational groups until his death in 1977.


King to Nelson, 18 August 1958, MLKP-MBU.

Blanche Wright Nelson, “A Tribute to My Husband,” Journal of Religious Thought (Fall 1978/Winter 1979): 54–56.

Nelson, “Satyagraha: Gandhian Principles of Non-Violent Non-Cooperation,” Journal of Religious Thought (Fall 1957/Winter 1958): 15–24.

Nelson to King, 10 April 1959, MLKP-MBU.