Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was ‘‘the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.’’
Dr. King first encountered Gandhi’s ideas during his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1949, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
In a seminary paper, Dr. King included Gandhi among “individuals who greatly reveal the working of the Spirit of God.”
Gandhi had called the practice of segregation in the United States ‘‘a negation of civilisation.’’
Dr. King first used Gandhi’s strategies of nonviolent direct action in the 1955 to 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, saying that‘‘Christ showed us the way and Gandhi in India showed it could work.’’
In 1959, Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King spent five weeks in India. In his Palm Sunday sermon delivered in India, Dr. King preached on the significance of Gandhi’s 1928 salt march and his fast to end discrimination against India’s untouchables.
Dr. King ultimately believed that Gandhi’s approach of nonviolent resistance would ‘‘bring about a solution to the race problem in America.’’
* * *
Mohandas K. Gandhi — later known as the Mahatma or Great Soul — was born in 1869 in Porbandar, in the western part of India. He was raised as a Hindu and practiced Hinduism his entire life.
At 18, Gandhi began training as a lawyer in England. He returned to India in 1891 as a barrister but couldn’t find work.
In 1893, he signed on for a year with an Indian law firm in South Africa. He ended up staying 21 years, leading the Indian community there in opposition to race-based laws and repression of the poor.
He called his non-violent approach to civil disobedience satyagraha (literally, truth-force or love-force). It included boycotts, sit-ins, fasting, and prayer. Gandhi accepted no violence from his followers, even if they were attacked by police or strike breakers.
He returned to India in 1914 and transformed the existing Indian National Congress party into a mass movement promoting Indian self-rule, using satyagraha and mass boycotts of British goods and institutions.
As part of his boycotting strategy, he advocated that all Indians should wear khadi, or homespun cloth, instead of British-made textiles. He linked spinning khadi to the Indian independence movement and invented a small, portable spinning wheel.
One of his greatest acts of satyagraha was the salt march. In the spring of 1930, he and 80 volunteers walked 200 miles to the sea. They produced salt from seawater. That violated the Salt Laws, part of the British colonial tax regime.
After a year of struggle, Gandhi negotiated a truce with the British colonial governor and ended the civil disobedience campaign. By then more than 60,000 Indians had been jailed for making salt.
When Gandhi was jailed again in 1931 for his protest against laws discriminating against ‘‘untouchables,’’ he fasted until near death. The laws against untouchables were finally repealed in 1947.
Later that year, Britain transferred governing power to a partitioned India, creating the two independent states of India and Pakistan.
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot to death during evening prayers at Birla House in Delhi. The assassin, later convicted and executed, apparently thought Gandhi hadn’t done enough to help Hindus in the Muslim areas of what became Pakistan.
* * *
This post is based on work published by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.