Though Martin Luther King Jr has long been recognised as the public face of the American civil rights movement, and, in modern times, has been linked to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela to constitute something like a triumvirate of “prophets of non-violence”, this genealogy is not without problems. In South Africa, Mandela, among the founders of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), had a highly ambivalent relationship with Gandhi and the larger question of non-violence. He was primarily responsible for adopting the position, as stated in the manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe, that “we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy.” But nothing one might say in this regard mitigates Mandela’s magnanimous resolve, which truly signifies the Gandhian phase in his life, to forgo revenge against the architects of Apartheid and his people’s tormentors.
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The picture, with respect to the American civil rights movement, is complicated for a different set of reasons, revolving around the fact that King comes at the tail end of a five-decade long African-American encounter with Gandhi. The call for a “Negro Gandhi” had first issued forth in 1920 by the extraordinary black intellectual, WEB Du Bois, and this call would be taken up by two generations of black writers, theologians, educators, and activists and large segments of an exceptionally active African-American press. Du Bois used the pages of his journal The Crisis to advance the cause of the “coloured races”, and in nearly 20 articles on Gandhi, written over a span of four decades, he championed him as the bellwether and grand hope of anti-colonial struggles that Du Bois hoped would lead to the end of racism and the creation of a more just and equitable world.
Du Bois was not without his doubts about the efficaciousness of Gandhian mass action in the United States: witness, for example, his 1943 debate with Ralph Templin of the Harlem Ashram, where Du Bois argued that fasting, prayer, and the idea of self-sacrifice had been “bred into the very bone of Indians” for over 3,000 years and were unlikely to be accepted by large numbers of people in a political cause in the US. However, a year after the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, Du Bois wrote a lengthier piece, Gandhi and the American Negroes, which he ends with an affirmation of his belief that “real human equality and brotherhood in the United States will only come under the leadership of another Gandhi.”
A number of other different strands in the African-American engagement with Gandhi can be identified as well. The white Unitarian minister, John Haynes Holmes, set the tone for a particular view of Gandhi as a “brown Christ” when he delivered a sermon from the pulpit of the Community Church of New York in 1921 called “Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?” He would be joined in his assessment by black theologians such as Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Mordecai Johnson. Second, there was a keen recognition on the part of black thinkers that the situation of their people in the American South was rather analogous to that of Indians under colonial rule. A pernicious system of “caste” hierarchy was thought to be behind slavery as much as Indian social structures; moreover, just as Gandhi objected to the deliberate emasculation of Indians by the British, so black leaders often dwelled on how slavery had stripped the black man of his manliness. Third, black thinkers found Gandhi’s distinction between non-violence of the strong and non-violence of the weak particularly compelling.
It was the genius of the so-called “civil rights movement” that it actualised these ideas into strategies of resistance that reflected local conditions, the histories of black people, and the fundamental difference that Indians were a “majority” in their country while blacks were a “minority” in their own. Though it is a large galaxy of names that comes to mind in thinking of how Gandhi’s ideas were deployed, by way of illustration we may think of Pauli Murray and the Reverend James Lawson. Murray was one of two black women who were arrested outside Petersburg, Virginia, in 1940 for defying segregations laws as they travelled by bus. By Murray’s own admission, her knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and, yet, they “applied” what they “knew of satyagraha, on the spot.”
It would fall to Lawson, an African-American Methodist, to act as one of the principal tacticians of the civil rights movement and bring Gandhi’s ideas into play in the political arena. As a Methodist missionary who lived in Nagpur from 1953-56, Lawson deepened his study of satyagraha and upon his return to the US, heeded King’s call to join him. It is in Nashville, Tennessee, that Lawson established what can well be called the first workshop of non-violence in Jim Crow South. He was determined to integrate the lunch counters in Nashville, and, in preparation, gathered students — among them John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, all luminaries of the movement — around him in September 1958, whom he trained over the course of a year in non-violent civil action and resistance. Perhaps his most celebrated protégé, Congressman John Lewis, who marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, described what happened in Lawson’s workshop in his book, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998): “We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa…to satyagraha — literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of non-violent civil disobedience, of active pacifism.”
It is well to remember, however, that ordinary Americans, including white women rarely recognised for their part in the movement, also lent their voices to the narrative. Juliette Hampton Morgan, a librarian in the Montgomery public library system, witnessed the gross mistreatment of black passengers on the city’s buses. She wrote frequently to express her outrage at the city’s segregation statutes. Eleven days after Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to move to the back of the bus, the Montgomery Advertiser published a letter by Morgan. Likening the bus boycott — which brought King to the attention of America — to the Dandi march, Morgan said that the “Negroes of Montgomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi…Their own task is greater than Gandhi’s, however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome.”
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That earned her the notoriety among many of Montgomery’s white citizens. In January 1957, the editor of the Tuscaloosa News, Buford Boone, came to Montgomery and spoke forcefully against the racism and violence directed at the black community. Our “‘Southern way of life’ must inevitably change”, wrote Morgan in appreciation: “I had begun to wonder if there were any men in the state — any white men — with…any good will, and most especially the moral courage to express it.” She started receiving hate mail and obscene phone calls; a cross was burned in her front yard. On July 17, Morgan’s mother found her dead, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bedside with a suicide note: “I am not going to cause any more trouble to anybody.” Morgan’s life is a testament to the courage of common people. She stands forth as a striking exemplification of what, following Gandhi, we can call the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
Vinay Lal is professor of history at UCLA. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘They had a dream’
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