What King Learned from Gandhi

By Priyanka KumarJanuary 16, 2017

What King Learned from Gandhi
“TO OTHER COUNTRIES I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.” This is not a quote from George Harrison. It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said when he visited India in 1959. Why King saw himself as a pilgrim to India is relevant not only to the American Civil Rights Movement, but also to the chronic violence that plagues us today. To our detriment, King’s core philosophy has been largely forgotten or is given only lip service, even in the areas of racial inequality and racial injustice, where it could have a transformative impact.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was successful not only because of the energy poured into it by hundreds of thousands of people, but also because it sought redress for racial injustice within the rule of law. King adopted a game-changing tool, nonviolence, which reduced white backlash and set the stage for civil rights activists and lawyers to fight for racial equality within the justice system. Nonviolence as a political tool was the brainchild of a lawyer, M. K. Gandhi, who first tested the method in South Africa and then deployed it to oust from India the most powerful colonial power of the time, Great Britain.

Gandhi was no longer alive in 1955 when King was asked to take on his first leadership role in Montgomery, Alabama. How did King develop an affinity for Gandhian principles? What led him to embrace Gandhi’s most potent idea? The story of this unlikely cross-pollination becomes even more remarkable when we consider that an influential teacher whom Gandhi derived his idea from was the author Leo Tolstoy.

Today, the race issue in the United States conjures up images of police shootings and chokeholds, black-on-black murders, riots, and incidents of sniper violence. The discussion about nonviolence and its potential role in advancing race relations is largely missing. This is surprising given that King, arguably the United States’s father of racial justice, believed fervently in nonviolence and used it forcefully to advance racial equality. It is no exaggeration when the King Center states that “during the less than 13 years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, from December, 1955 until April 4, 1968, African Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced.”


On December 2, 1955, the morning after Rosa Parks’s arrest, King led a meeting at the Mt. Zion church in Montgomery to consider boycott strategies. Sixteen to eighteen people showed up. In the beginning, both King and Gandhi had small numbers of supporters for their respective causes. In South Africa, when Gandhi set out to disobey the Transvaal government’s discriminatory 1906 Act, his only support was his opposition to the law and some tens of supporters (the numbers would soon swell to some hundreds). A young pastor, King had distinguished himself mainly by supporting the idea of a bus boycott at a time when other local clergymen were reluctant to do so. As a relatively new Montgomery resident, he also had the advantage of not being enmeshed in standing political feuds. Keeping these considerations in mind, local activist E. D. Nixon had summarily appointed King the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the boycott.

Montgomery buses were segregated with different rows assigned to people of white and black races. If all the white rows were full when a white person boarded the bus, the black people occupying the front-most row were supposed to vacate it. That is exactly what Rosa Parks refused to do. The bus boycott to protest her arrest was initially planned to last just one day, the day of her trial. It stretched on for 381 days. The foot soldiers of Montgomery, along with the carpoolers and the black cab drivers who aided the boycott, sent a message to the city’s transit system that they rejected Jim Crow laws. Their message had economic muscle and it drew the ire of city leaders as well as some of Montgomery’s white citizens.

In January 1956, King’s house was firebombed, while his infant daughter Yolanda slept inside. Coretta called her husband and he rushed back home. After making sure his wife and daughter were unharmed, King spoke to the distressed black supporters gathered outside. They were willing to retaliate, but King bid them otherwise. “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them,” he said. “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.”

Imagine if King had let the crowd grow violent. As is well known, and as the King Center reminds us, some civil rights supporters in the ’50s and the ’60s advocated freedom by “any means necessary,” including violence. On that 1956 winter night, if King’s supporters had smashed in Montgomery storefronts or hurt even a small number of its white citizens, the city would have gotten all the tinder it needed to seriously damage King’s position. Public support for the movement would likely have fizzled. How can that be stated with any assurance? As I noted in my review of Elizabeth Hinton’s book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, that is what happened nine years later when the Watts riots in Los Angeles grew violent. Once images of the rioters damaging white-owned business began to circulate, public empathy for the rioters’ cause waned.

King’s stance had strong philosophical underpinnings. The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers (Vol. I–VI, with more volumes forthcoming) is an essential compilation for those who want an intimate view of how King’s political thinking evolved — how he transformed himself from a Montgomery pastor to the leader of one of the most important movements in American history. King read what books by Gandhi he could get hold of, he corresponded with Gandhians, and, most importantly, he met American Gandhians who helped him refine his message. In the end, King “crafted his own synthesis of Gandhian principles and what he termed the ‘regulating ideal’ of Christian love.” As the bus boycott unfolded, King saw firsthand how nonviolent protests draw attention to a just cause, rather than detracting from it. He began to refer to Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

Gandhi had read about Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to support war and his subsequent arrest after he would not pay taxes to a government at war. From Thoreau’s classic essay, “Civil Disobedience,” Gandhi drew the strength he needed in 1906 to disobey South Africa’s latest discriminatory laws, which compelled “registration of the colony’s Indian and Chinese populations.” Gandhi later wrote about that decisive year:

I had then to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot; and it came to me that we should refuse to obey the legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked. Thus came into being the moral equivalent of war …

It was Leo Tolstoy who would teach him the spirit in which to disobey degrading laws. Tolstoy’s writings on the subject reached Gandhi by some serendipity. Tolstoy had written a response to a letter from the editor of an Indian newspaper Free Hindustan, but the editor did not publish it. Tolstoy’s letter got into Gandhi’s hands, and he was smitten. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to publish the letter along with a Gujarati translation in a journal he ran, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy gave his blessing and a happy marriage of minds commenced.

In an introduction Gandhi wrote in Indian Opinion in 1909 to Tolstoy’s letter, he summarizes Tolstoy’s core teaching to his readers: “Slavery consists in submitting to an unjust order, not in suffering ourselves to be kicked. Real courage and humanity consist in not returning a kick for a kick.” Gandhi was drawn to a concept Tolstoy called “Soul-Force or Love-Force.” He extended Tolstoy’s concept to mean: “If someone gives us pain through ignorance, we shall win him through love.”

Before you dismiss this as mumbo jumbo, consider that Gandhi used this force to eject the British from India for good. King studied Gandhi’s success and he felt persuaded by “the power of love to overcome injustice.” He told his supporters, “Love must be at the forefront of our movement if it is to be a successful movement. And when we speak of love, we speak of understanding, good will toward all men.”

Admittedly, King’s leadership of the bus boycott was not met by love from Montgomery’s White Citizens’ Council. After months-long harassment of those involved in the protest, including “a white Lutheran pastor of a black congregation,” King and other protest leaders called upon the Eisenhower administration to investigate the bombings of their homes and intimidation by city officials.

Two Department of Justice representatives responded that such harassment “does not appear to indicate violations of federal criminal statutes”; they did express willingness, however, to look into potential violations of voter registration laws.

Montgomery County offered King and his supporters even less love. In February 1956, a county grand jury indicted King and other bus boycott leaders for conspiring to interfere with a lawful business under a 1921 Anti-Boycott Act. The activists did not wait to be arrested. They turned themselves in. King spent two weeks in prison. The episode flooded national attention to the cause. The bus boycott would become the groundbreaking campaign of the Civil Rights Movement, and King would emerge as the movement’s national leader.

Here too, King’s mentor had paved the way: Gandhi had famously used arrests as a public relations tool. He welcomed appearing before courts. As a young man, he had been painfully shy, but he had grown into a public speaker the British government dreaded. Gandhi used court appearances as an opportunity to highlight unfair labor laws and taxation, and to gain the government’s ear. His determination to use the justice system to change repressive laws was served brilliantly by his adherence to nonviolence. Because he truly cared about maintaining law and order at all times, there was often little the British government could do to crack down on him or his supporters, short of arresting him. A relentlessly busy man, Gandhi also used prison-time, which sometimes came with hard labor, to nourish himself spiritually. Which is just as well, because between the ages of 39 and 75, Gandhi would spend nearly seven years in prison.

An early Indian case illustrates Gandhi’s approach. For decades, British landlords had forced indentured laborers in Bihar to grow cash crops such as indigo (which they bought cheaply to export to China as opium), instead of the food crops the peasants needed to survive. Ravaged by low wages, a brutal famine, and harsh taxes, the peasants of Champaran revolted in 1914 and again in 1916. Gandhi visited the area at the persistent request of a local activist. Along with other lawyers, he set about studying the conditions the indigo planters worked in. The British government, who backed the repressive landlords, promptly served him a notice, on the charge of creating unrest, and ordered him to leave Champaran.

Gandhi had no intention of leaving until he could fully examine the peasants’ hardships and consider how to alleviate their dire conditions. On his trial day, he appeared before a local judge (a British man) and just as the somewhat overwhelmed judge was considering postponing the trial, Gandhi asked to make a statement. The argument he made for his presence in Champaran is as persuasive as any political speech I have heard. He ended it with a nod to his respect for the law, just before he threw in his punch line:

I have ventured to make this statement not in any way in extenuation of the penalty to be awarded against me, but to show that I have disregarded the order served upon me, not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience of the higher law of our being — the voice of conscience.

It was the kind of statement that impressed British judges (the British revere the rule of law) and newspaper reporters and gave the British government a headache. Soon after, the lieutenant governor ordered the case against Gandhi to be withdrawn. The local law enforcement began to treat him with respect: though by now, supporters thronged his temporary headquarters, the authorities knew he was doing his utmost to prevent unruly incidents. While in Champaran, Gandhi wrote to the major newspapers asking them not to send any more reporters. He was concerned that overreporting on the issue would hurt the “delicate” situation of the indigo planters (who were facing retaliation from their landlords). Instead, he offered to send the newspapers updates if there was anything newsworthy to report. Gandhi being Gandhi, while in Champaran, he also took on education reform, women’s upliftment, and the scourge of untouchability. He would eventually negotiate an agreement on the peasants’ behalf with the British landlords, and Champaran would become his first significant success in the Indian independence movement.

The Montgomery boycott had grown bigger, and received more national attention, than its organizers could have anticipated in its early days. In June 1956, a US District Court ruled that racial segregation in Montgomery’s buses was unconstitutional. A few months later, in December, the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling, stating that Alabama and Montgomery laws that required buses to be segregated were unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court decision was followed by a frenzy of violence aimed at Montgomery’s black population. There were sniper incidents on buses (a pregnant black woman’s leg was “shattered”), a shot was fired through the front door of King’s home (while he slept inside with his wife and child), and five black churches were bombed. Seven Klansmen were later charged with the church bombings, but all were subsequently acquitted.

King was undeterred. His formative experiences during the boycott had cemented his trust in nonviolence, just as South Africa was the testing ground that had convinced Gandhi to stick to nonviolence. When despite all of Gandhi’s best efforts, violence erupted — in one instance, an Indian crowd turned on a much smaller number of policemen — his response generally was to put the independence movement in deep freeze and turn the focus on self-examination. On occasion, fellow nationalists spurred him on to violence, which they thought would be a more expedient way to the goal of independence. Others thought he was a “rascally person,” secretly plotting violence, and they asked him when he meant to reveal his grand plan. Gandhi told them that he disliked secrecy and he had no other plan in mind. If nonviolence was a slower path, he felt it was also a surer path. “The goal ever recedes from us,” he wrote. “The greater the progress, the greater the recognition of our unworthiness. Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”

The year after the Supreme Court victory, in 1957, King began to expand the reach of his message.

In late March, when he addressed an interracial audience in Brooklyn, he combined the two sources of his nonviolent strategy in a way that became characteristic: “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work.” […] He explained to his audiences that Gandhi had used nonviolence “to break loose from the political and economic domination by the British.” […] He urged them to “now use this method in the United States.”

By now, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was on King’s trail, having him wiretapped, even while he traveled, and pursuing any lead that could undermine King’s credibility and his growing national popularity. Hoover, it seems, had some dark notions about King, some of which were reflected in a chilling letter the FBI is believed to have sent King, the kind that is sent to encourage the recipient to commit suicide. Hoover also believed King was “taking guidance from communists.”

In 1959, King and his wife, Coretta, visited India to better understand Gandhi’s principles. In New Delhi, they met the leading Gandhians of the time, including Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had aided Gandhi as a young nationalist in Champaran. Initially, the young, wealthy Nehru had allied himself with revolutionaries who supported violence as the faster path to independence. But Gandhi had won him over with this challenge: “You people are always talking about revolution. I am making one. What is revolutionary about violence? If you really love your people, help me show them how to turn their backs on violence and throw off their fear.” King and his wife met Gandhi’s son, Ramdas, and paid their respects at Gandhi’s memorial. The trip had a “profound influence” on King’s commitment to the United States’s struggle for civil rights. Later that year, he wrote to Ramdas: “I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in our struggle for freedom and human dignity.”


The adherence to nonviolence had begun as something of an experiment for both King and Gandhi. It had transformed their movements, and they continued to use it. Both were practical men. Gandhi was a political scientist in the literal sense of that phrase: he loved to experiment and discover the truth for himself. It is no surprise his autobiography is subtitled, “The Story of My Experiments With Truth.” In the end, nonviolence became a profoundly important principle for Gandhi. Much more than a political tool, it became a way of life. King echoed this sentiment exactly.

It is a sad irony then that both men were assassinated, King at the young age of 39 and Gandhi at 78. “I hold it to be a superstition to believe that it [nonviolence] can work only in private life,” Gandhi wrote. “There is no department of life public or private to which that force cannot be applied.” He added a caveat: “But this nonviolence is impossible without complete self-effacement.” For Gandhi, part of the self-effacement consisted in subjecting his personal life to the same moral scrutiny he gave to his movements. King, on the other hand, had personal failings that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in today’s social media age. The FBI threatened to make his alleged adultery public unless he withdrew from the Civil Rights Movement, but King refused to be intimidated.

Gandhi believed that nonviolence should come from a place of strength. He clarified that by strength, he meant not so much “physical capacity,” but an “indomitable will.” He encouraged Indians to assess their resources, both inner and outer, and recognize their immense strength. There is an echo in his writings on the subject of what Theodore Roosevelt (not exactly a pacifist) famously wrote in a letter in 1900: “I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’” Gandhi and Roosevelt were not brothers in nonviolence, but they were both exceptional diplomats. Gandhi called himself a “practical idealist.”

Gandhi’s spirit of practical idealism is more relevant to our times than we might think. Today, young, low-income people of color need a tool to protest their second-class status in the criminal justice system. A number of sociological studies have now shown that even minor offenses can pave the way for these adolescents to accrue criminal records, which all but render them unemployable. The president of the Harvard Law Review, Michael Zuckerman recently spoke to the Washington Post about the “second chance” he got after he was arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing at 13. A white youth, Zuckerman “retained a lawyer, who was also a family friend, and the court put him in a juvenile diversion program, which essentially meant he had to do community service and stay out of trouble.” Low-income black youth rarely get such second chances. Their second-class status in the justice system makes it exceedingly challenging for them to exit the cycle of poverty, drugs, and crime.

In a 1960 interview, King said that the real purpose of his nonviolent campaign was “to achieve full citizenship rights” for African Americans. Modern day civil rights activists must challenge the country to complete the task King tragically left unfinished and achieve “full citizenship rights” for low-income African Americans. Black and brown men in disadvantaged neighborhoods have been stuck in a poverty-prison-unemployment rut for so long that there is a need for paradigm-shifting ideas. Nonviolence in these neighborhoods would be sure to change the attitude of police officers and give detractors pause.

Our country gives lip service to the cause of these adolescents, but it no secret that many blame them for the position they’re in. In a recent Washington Post article, a white mayor of Mount Airy, North Carolina, said that black youth bring hardships on themselves. “When you’re my age and you see an African American boy with pants at their knees, you can’t appreciate them,” he said, noting that he would never employ someone who dressed that way. The wife of a white pastor in Mount Airy said that African Americans who have voiced concerns over what Trump will do for the poor would have a different perspective if they tried harder to help themselves. “I think black people think they’re owed something,” she said.

The openly racist attitudes of the past had never really gone away, they had mostly been swept under the rug. The success of Trump’s divisive campaign has again exposed deep-rooted racism in our country. With President-elect Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon, an alt-right winger, as his chief strategist, race is poised to become a front-and-center issue, but in a way that could aggravate problems in the country’s already economically distressed urban enclaves.

When Robert F. Williams, a NAACP leader, challenged King’s nonviolent, “turn-the-other-cheekism” strategy, King countered: “There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men.” To be sure, in today’s poverty-stricken urban environments, riddled as they are with drugs, gang violence, and heavily armed police, nonviolence sounds more like a pipedream than a realistic strategy. As Gandhi discovered, nonviolence only works when adherence to it is total. At one time, though, King and Gandhi’s movements were also pipedreams.

Nonviolence should no longer be a fringe concept. That it is underestimated today is a result of ignorance. Violence disenfranchises the public and antagonizes those in power in a way that does not serve the social change that is being sought. Violence is almost always a deal-breaker for activists who mean to navigate the justice system. Gandhi understood this and King was a quick study on this point. Both men framed their goals in positive terms — Indian independence and civil rights — and both insisted on nonviolence, even when it slowed their progress. In view of Gandhi and King’s impressive use of nonviolence to catalyze social change, what makes us shy away from experimenting with this tool today?


Priyanka Kumar, author of the novel Take Wing and Fly Here and the writer/director of the documentary The Song of the Little Road, has written widely on race relations.

LARB Contributor

Priyanka Kumar is the author of the widely acclaimed book Conversations with Birds (2022). Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksOrion, and The Rumpus.


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