Gandhi, A Singular Guide For MLK And Civil Rights Movement

At the 150th anniversary of the Indian independence leader and philosopher of non-violence, looking back long line of African-American leaders influenced by his ideas.

The two men never met but they are intertwined in 20th century history
Archishman Raju

NEW DELHI — This year, we mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. A person's ideas and actions can only be judged by seeing their role over the course of world history. Even as we see the myriad aspects of Gandhi's life and associated ideas a century and a half after his birth, we should not forget his prime importance to history and to his time: as the leader of the Indian anti-colonial struggle, the culmination of which led to the first break from the chain of Western colonialism.

It is for this struggle in all its aspects and complexity, that India cemented its place in the 20th century inspiring leaders ranging from Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah who coined the term "positive action" based on his study of Gandhian satyagraha to Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh who called himself a "disciple" of Gandhi.

And yet no struggle seems to have been as deeply informed by the Indian freedom movement as the African-American struggle for freedom, often called the Civil Rights movement. Those who criticize Gandhi as a "racist" based on remarks he made in South Africa tend to completely ignore the African-American encounter with Gandhi, nor appreciate its depth.

African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois conducted a scientific study of the concept of race and provided a theoretical understanding of the nature of racism in America and the world. Du Bois greatly admired Gandhi, saying: "He was the Prince of Peace and stood among living leaders alone, because of that fact…It is singular that a man who was not a follower of the Christian religion should be in his day the best exemplification of the principles which that religion was supposed to lay down."

Du Bois believed that it was particularly important that Gandhi had learned and fashioned his methods in Africa, for Africa was at the center of European colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

He was only one in a long line of African-American leaders who looked towards India as they were engaged in their own struggle. Two institutions played a defining role in this connection between India and Afro-America: the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as well as the Black Church.

Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College, an HBC, visited India and met Gandhi. His conversation convinced him that Gandhi's campaign had given the Indian masses a new conception of courage from which there was much to learn. The first African-American president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson visited India, studied the ideas of its freedom struggle. On attending his lecture in Philadelphia, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was so moved that he committed himself to studying the methods and philosophy of Gandhi.

The Mahatma in an unattributed image — Photo: Wikipedia

The theologian Howard Thurman, along with Sue Bailey Thurman, also visited India and met Gandhi in 1936. His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, profoundly influenced Martin Luther King Jr. Sue Bailey Thurman invited Gandhi to visit America, saying: "We want you not for White America, but for the Negroes; we have many a problem that cries for solution and we need you badly."

King found Gandhi's philosophy to be more intellectually and morally satisfying than the whole pantheon of European philosophers.

Even though Gandhi never visited America, his ideas traveled there, and were applied in the struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. It can be said that the African-American people, in their application of Gandhian ideas, provided perhaps the greatest interpretation of his method.

In describing his intellectual journey, Dr King has stated he found Gandhi's philosophy to be more intellectually and morally satisfying than the whole pantheon of European philosophers. His criterion for the judgment was the applicability of this philosophy to his own struggle for freedom. He then went on to philosophically build upon those ideas, saying it was necessary to fight against the three evils of militarism, excessive materialism and racism in American society, calling for a revolution of values and the creation of a "beloved community." In fact, Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi are so closely tied together in their philosophy, work and historical roles that it is almost as if the two must be understood together.

On visiting India in 1958, King had this to say: "We were looked upon as brothers 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."

This sentiment was most famously captured in the Bandung conference in 1955, in which India led the non-aligned movement and colonies emerging into freedom. King believed that Gandhi had exerted significant influence on the conscience of the international community and that it was necessary to follow his principles of non-violence in international relations. The choice, for him, was between non-violence and non-existence.

Today, when "international recognition" for India, most recently seen in the event "Howdy, Modi!", has abandoned any commitment to principles and seems to be primarily associated with White America, it is important that this history be remembered. In fact, the historic city of Philadelphia celebrated the 150th anniversary of Gandhi with an event titled "Mahatma Gandhi and our Single Garment of Destiny" by inviting civil rights leader and close associate of King, Rev. James Lawson to speak at the City Hall.

MLK arrested in 1958 — Photo: Charles Moore

Rev. Lawson is another link in the long chain that deeply connects the Indian and the Black freedom struggles. Rev. Lawson became a practitioner of non-violence early in his life, influenced by his mother. He would later read Gandhi and study non-violence during his college years. He stayed in India for a brief period between 1953-1956, during which time he furthered his study of Gandhi and met Jawaharlal Nehru. After returning to America, he eventually joined the struggle for racial and economic justice, most famously in campaigns to end segregation in Nashville, Tennessee.

It is worthwhile to ask, why and how Gandhian philosophy and tactics were so successfully applied by African-Americans. They point to deeper connections and roots of non-violence. This fact was explained by Rev. Lawson who said that Gandhi brought together and synthesized elements whose spirit existed around the world. Gandhi himself said: "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could."

As Philadelphia marked the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, a city council resolution passed on the same day urged people to "honor the legacy of Gandhi and unite in mutual love to achieve peace and justice." It is a reminder that these freedom struggles of the past remain unfinished, and it is in continuing our efforts to struggle for peace and justice that we can pay to Mahatma Gandhi the most honest tribute that he deserves.

Archishman Raju is a research fellow in physics and biology at Rockefeller University.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.



• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.


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Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.

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$2.1 billion

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It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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