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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 7, February 11, 2023

Remembering Martin Luther King’s trip to India | Archishman Raju

Friday 10 February 2023


by Archishman Raju *

It is one of the extraordinary stories of the 20th century that the civil rights movement in the United States adopted and advanced the ideas of the Indian Freedom Struggle. What allowed the Gandhian ideas of ahimsa and satyagraha, which derived from ancient Indian philosophy, to be so readily accepted and so successfully applied by Afro-American people? The story of this connection extends across time and space, with African American intellectuals like W.E.B Du Bois studying India and one of King’s mentors, Howard Thurman, visiting India and meeting Gandhi. Gandhi had predicted in 1934 in his conversation with Thurman, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world”
Martin Luther King Jr. himself visited India in 1959 on the official invitation of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi. He toured India extensively, visiting all four corners of the country. He met with Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaparakash Narayan among others. “We were looked upon as brothers”, King said later, “with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism.”

Hence the Black movement in America saw itself in parallel to the anti-colonial struggle and in opposition to imperialism. More than that, however, there was a philosophical connection between the Black and Indian movements which conceptualized the two together in a fight against the global color line and extended the concept of love and truth to political practice.

In his My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, King describes his philosophical journey including his study and eventual rejection of classical liberalism through the works of Bentham, Mill and Locke, how Nietzsche shook his faith in love, his encounter with the philosophy of the existentialists including Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Jean-Paul Sartre and the way Hegel showed him that growth comes through struggle and how Marx and Lenin helped shape his critique of traditional capitalism. Nevertheless, after going through the whole pantheon of western philosophy, it was in Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence that we found intellectual and moral satisfaction. He said, “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.”

For King, the anxiety produced by the chaos of the modern world that existentialism had elucidated could not be resolved in the abstract, but rather required concrete collective struggle and moral choices.

In turning towards Gandhi’s philosophy, King developed it further. While his language and imagery was very influenced by the Black Church, the message he gave can be universally appreciated. King was convinced that our political choices must be moral choices. He said “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” He held the idea that we should be transformed nonconformists, by which he meant we should not conform to a system merely because it dominates our society but at the same time we should not simply be non-conformists without any capacity to transform society. In his poetic words, “Living in the colony of time, we are ultimately responsible to the empire of eternity”. He believed that revolutionary change in society would come through a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.

What does it mean to be a revolutionary? People often confuse non-conformism and rebellion with revolution. But professed intentions and performative radicalism are only of academic interest and do not mean much to the majority of people. A true revolutionary must be able to take the masses of people to a new stage of history. What Gandhi and King realized was that revolutionary change must not just change structures, but must make a new people. This was the purpose of their striving.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a revolutionary. He moved with his people, not ahead of them. The movement he led transformed the American nation as a whole and should be thought of as the third American revolution.
The American ruling elite pretends to celebrate King but they were his enemies during his lifetime. In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King said “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” The American intelligence agencies were tracking every phone call, and every move he made in an effort to discredit him and psychologically break him. They were eventually involved in his assassination. King’s family and associates never believed that the man accused of this murder, James Earl Ray, really killed him.

This American ruling elite today posits that there is a worldwide struggle of democracy against authoritarianism. Martin Luther King never accepted this cold war rhetoric. In words that continue to ring true, when he spoke out against the Vietnam war in Riverside church, he called the American government, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. In a speech honoring Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, he said “Our irrational obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.” For this ruling elite to pretend to celebrate King while it continues to have 900 military bases around the world, sends $100 billion to Ukraine and encircles China is a mockery.

So many Indians today have gone to America and are familiar with the country. India has been declared to be the biggest “swing state” in the world, and the world will watch which way we will align as the world undergoes rapid changes. We should remember that our natural link is with America’s revolutionary tradition, which King represented, and not with its ruling elite, which seeks to continue Western supremacy in the world. Our natural place is with King’s call for peace and worldwide brotherhood, not with the American neoconservatives, now organized around the Democratic party, who seek endless American domination. A new generation of Indians facing this world will find in King a kindred spirit, a figure they can read and understand. There is no better way to understand the crisis in the West today than to read Martin Luther King Jr. and we must understand this crisis to be able to take our rightful place in the changing world. We should remember Martin Luther King by reading him, understanding him and building on his ideas.

(Author: Archishman Raju)

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