Gandhi and America
Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD is Honorary Associate Professor and Research Fellow in Philosophy at Deakin University, and Honorary Fellow, University of Melbourne, Australia; Visiting Professor and Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley.
He has held fellowships in Oxford, Harvard, Emory and Shimla Universities. His research and publications cover classical Indian philosophy, comparative ethics; Continental thought; cross-cultural philosophy of religion; testimony; emotions; bioethics, religion and Indian law.
There is today in the world but one living maker of miracles, and that is Mahatma Gandhi. He stops eating, and three hundred million Indians, together with the British Empire, hold their breath until they can talk together; yet all that America sees in Gandhi is a joke, but the real joke is America.
– W. E. B. Du Bois, 1932
Little did the well-attired, English-trained lawyer, fresh from India and thrown off the train at the Pietermaritzburg railway station in Natal Province (South Africa) in 1893, realize that his chance encounter the next day with an “an American Negro who happened to be there” would have long reverberations across two continents. But the generosity shown by a powerless black American, in a land where he enjoyed no privileges or rights of his ancestors, to an equally disenfranchised and palpably shaken Indian immigrant, would remain in the back of Gandhi’s ever-alert mind. As Gandhi learned more about the dispossessed and marginalized, he saw that those supposedly free people were still bound with other kinds of fetters. While the successful young advocate went on to fight for the labor and residence rights of Indians, the image of the African American who helped him find lodging in the otherwise whites-only town followed him. He sometimes encountered black Africans as inmates in the jails he would be thrown into for his civil agitations on behalf of the Asian and colored workers in white South Africa. Gandhi even led a neutral Indian ambulance corps in the Boer-British war, rescuing injured blacks among the victims. This budding critic of imperialism recognized distinctive processes in the continuing enslavement of people of color across the globe. Gandhi never lost sight of the plight of the descendants of the former slaves and colored people in America, while also acknowledging the more enlightened principles of the U.S. Constitution and of leaders such as Thoreau, Jefferson, Lincoln, and John Dewey.
Gandhi often made a point of inquiring with deep empathy about the struggles of the “Negroes” in America, whom he thought suffered the same horrid social stigma as did the “untouchables” at the lowest rungs of India’s caste system.
In the deep south of sub-Saharan Africa, Gandhi drew world attention in 1907 as he led the first-ever successful satyagraha, or active resistance based on non-violent principles. This movement would gradually sweep across the rest of the world, beginning with its adoption for the nationalist freedom struggle in India under Gandhi’s own leadership. It also motivated the black-led civil rights campaign in the U.S. and culminated just recently with South Africa’s own emancipation from apartheid. Gandhi often made a point of inquiring with deep empathy about the struggles of the “Negroes” in America, whom he thought suffered the same horrid social stigma as did the “untouchables” at the lowest rungs of India’s caste system. He held high hopes for the spirit of the American “Negroes” to be able to overcome the obstructing social and political barriers, which in some ways were less traditionally or irredeemably textured than in India’s own weighty past. But how did Gandhi reach, or reach out to, African America?
It happened over a period of time, through the convergent ingenuity of itinerant Indian freedom fighters and preacher-advocates of a home-grown peaceful voice against the proscription of “Negroes, Jews, and women” from mainstream American life. Inspired by the ideas of Ruskin, Emerson, and Thoreau, Gandhi’s radical journals from the humble printing press in Phoenix Settlement outside Durban reached America, usually through contacts in Britain and Europe. African Americans began to attend conferences in England and Paris on Pan-African and Colored Peoples Congresses, where followers of Gandhi articulated the irrationality of the common plight of “brown and black races.” Among the U.S. participants was W. E. B. Du Bois, whose acquaintance-and that of the other flamboyant all-African leader, Marcus Garvey-with expatriate Indian nationalists led to a steady stream of them on conference and lecture tours of America (usually to New York and thence to the South).
Independent of the localized “Negro” interest, a handful of white American clergy with leanings toward the Unitarians, Spiritualists, Quakers, and enlightened Methodists or Baptists whose congregations were largely black also followed Gandhi’s career and message of nonviolent moral and political action against oppression. They were joined in the mid-1920s by C.F. Andrews and Mirabai (née, Madeline Slade), two close English emissaries, followed by the American journalist-activist Gertrude Emerson, whom Gandhi sent abroad to correct the misleading polemics by the British (and their American imitators) about his cause in India. A spate of Indian National Congress delegates also followed. Lectures of such compatriots and time spent in Morehouse or Spelman college libraries, with Hubert Harrison in Harlem, Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, or Du Bois in New York and at Howard University also reinforced the African-American intellectuals’ growing admiration of and appeal to Gandhi, the “lean agitator in loin-cloth.” As early as 1920, the black pacificist John Haynes Holmes likened Gandhi to a “Social Jesus” of modern times, fighting for the wretched of the earth. By 1932 Du Bois had declared that “there is today in the world but one living maker of miracles, and that is Mahatma Gandhi. He stops eating, and three hundred million Indians, together with the British Empire, hold their breath until they can talk together; yet all that America sees in Gandhi is a joke, but the real joke is America.”
Each major step in Gandhi’s struggle–his imprisonment, virtual impeachment for sedition, jubilant court-case speeches, fasting, successful satyagrahas such as the Salt March–and his personal messages to “The Negroes of America,” were noted in the leading black papers, magazines, and independent church newsletters. In particular, the Crisis (subtitled “A Record of Darker Races” and stamped with seven Hindu swastikas), edited since 1910 by Du Bois, along with (Garvey’s) the Negro World, Atlanta Daily World, Chicago Defender, Christian Century, and others, stepped up coverage of Gandhi in 1920s and 1930s.
African Americans were the first observers outside India to appreciate Kasturba Gandhi’s exemplary role as a woman in the struggle for justice.
Articles featured the increasing traffic between Gandhi’s India and the American South, beginning with the first African-American delegation to meet Mohandas Gandhi in 1936 (led by Howard Thurman). Gandhi’s moving interview with Sue Bailey Thurman is reported in Thurman’s “Head and Heart,” alongside a rare photograph of a Gandhi, now deep in India’s crisis, with Sue Bailey (the original is in Emory’s Special Collections). In 1947, black America joined celebrations of India’s hard-earned Independence with a delegation led by Mordecai Johnson (of Howard) and Benjamin Mays (of Morehouse).
A generation of civil rights movement leaders–Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Whitney Young, Vincent Harding, and James Farmer–came under the spell of the powerful educator-cum-preacher in Thurman (whose personal library on Gandhiana was far ahead of any college library collection in the United States). Other recognizable names around metro-Atlanta who came under Gandhian influence were Ralph McGill (who had a photo of Kasturbai on his office wall), Richard Gregg, Devere Allen, Kirby Page, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Bayard Rustin. African Americans were the first observers outside of India also to appreciate Kasturba Gandhi’s exemplary role as a woman in the struggle for justice. King had a virtual conversion to the Gandhian way after hearing the sermons of Johnson, who too had visited Gandhi’s ashram-headquarters. King observed a fledgling group of student protesters (SNCC) versed in Gandhian tactics. Thus drawn to nonviolence, in 1959 he and Coretta Scott King traveled extensively in India, re-living Gandhi’s memory.
God is Truth.
The way to Truth
lies in ahimsa
– M.K. Gandhi
King’s absolute conviction in the efficacy of the Indian philosophy of nonviolence to achieve racial justice was set out in his 1958 book, Stride Towards Freedom. With young, nonviolent activists in tow, King eventually mobilized a mass movement, systematically enacting satyagraha-style sit-ins, nonviolent human barricades, civil disobedience, marches, rallies, noncooperation strikes, and pickets, spiced with passionate speeches, while risking arrests or police beating.
In Martin Luther King Jr., (black) America found the matured spirit of an indigenous Mahatma, prepared to lay down his life for an all-out struggle against the continuing oppression of its “untouchables.”
The on-going process of reconciling nonviolence with violence-prone authorities and racist institutions, however, was a long time in the making in racialized America, as in colonial Africa and British India. This is how the fervently productive and politically significant threads were woven between the Indian freedom movement with its transnational advocates and a fledgling African-American liberatory consciousness, beginning with Pan-African advocates like Du Bois and Garvey, and continuing well into the post-World War years, through to Indian Independence and the civil rights movement in the South.