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Gandhi’s Legacy to America

September 2004
Gandhi’s Legacy to America

By H. V. Shivadas

Mohandas K. Gandhi's indirect but compelling influence on an important chapter of American history is a testament to the power of an idea whose time has come. Such an idea snowballs into a force that finds itself where needed. Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence as a tool of the oppressed was just such a force; and its American avatar was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a chief architect of the Civil Rights movement.

The successful application of non-violence in India's independence movement rendered it a flaming torch which illuminated our world. This torch was carried to America by those engaged in their own fight for equality, if not independence. They included Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the principal of Morehouse College, who returned from India as one of the growing number of African-American disciples of Mahatma Gandhi.

When Dr. King entered Morehouse at the age of 15, Mays became one of the great influences in his life. And there, the torch was passed on. In February of 1959, Dr. King and his wife spent a month in India studying Gandhi's techniques of nonviolence as the guests of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

That year, Dr. King gave a sermon in Birmingham Alabama. The subject of the sermon was the Life of Gandhi. In that sermon, Dr. King said, "The world doesn't like people like Mahatma Gandhi. That's strange, isn't it? They don't like people like Christ, nor do they like people like Lincoln. They killed Gandhi ? this man who had done all of that for India, who gave his life and who mobilized and galvanized 400 million people for independence. One of his own fellow Hindus felt that he was a little too favorable to Muslims; felt that he was giving too much to the Muslims. Here was the man of non-violence, falling at the hands of a man of violence. Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man with hate. This seems the way of history. And isn't it significant that he died on the same day as Christ died? It was on a Friday. And this is the story of history, but thank God it never stopped there. Thank God that Good Friday is never the end. The man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity. For the same reason that Abraham Lincoln was shot, mark you, for the same reason Gandhi was shot ? that is, the attempt to heal the wounds of a divided nation. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by and said, ?Now he belongs to the ages.' The same things are true of Mahatma Gandhi. Now he belongs to the ages."

Dr. King once told a story of his visit to India to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. "I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India to the city of Trivandrum in Kerala. That afternoon I was to speak at a school, what would be the equivalent of what we call a high school in this country. This particular school was attended by and large by students who were the children of former ?untouchables'."

"The principal of the school introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he said, ?Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.'. And for a moment, I was a bit shocked and even peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable."

"I started thinking about the fact that twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in an affluent society. As I thought about this, I finally said to myself, ?Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States is an untouchable."

Later, Dr. King wrote, "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals, to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contract theory of Hobbes, the 'back to nature' optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi."

The teachings of Gandhi and the love of Gandhi for the poor and impoverished had a tremendous influence on Dr. King. Ambassador Lalit Mansingh spoke about the Gandhi-King connection at a ceremony last year at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, saying, "Gandhi and King joined India and the United States together through the bonds of shared suffering and struggle," The Ambassador expressed a keen understanding of the influence of Gandhi on Dr. King when he said, "Dr. King synthesized Gandhi's method of nonviolence and the Christian ethics of love to develop a powerful weapon in the struggle of the African-American community for human dignity."

Martin Luther King, Jr. received the torch from Mahatma Gandhi, before the Mahatma's assassination in 1948, and held it high until his own assassination three decades later. Afterwards, it was kept burning by the civil rights movement. And today, it is we who must carry on the torch and keep it ever lifted up, that it may be passed on to future generations.

[October 2nd is Mahatma Gandhi's Birth Anniversary]

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