Chester Bowles greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., early on in his career. As ambassador to India and a key member of the Democratic Party, Bowles was a powerful voice of support for King’s methods and message of nonviolence. Bowles and his wife were early financial supporters of the Montgomery bus boycott, and when King wrote to Dorothy Bowles in 1956 to express his appreciation for their support, he described her husband as “one of the greatest statesmen of our nation and of our age” (Papers 3:466).
Chester Bliss Bowles was born on 5 April 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Charles Allen and Nellie Harris Bowles. He received his BS from Yale University in 1924 and started an advertising firm in 1929. He served as governor of Connecticut from 1949 to 1951, and after posts with the United Nations he was appointed ambassador to India in 1951. While in India he became very popular with the Indian government, as well as with the people of India, for his unpretentious and personable style. Bowles’ time in India provided him with a deep appreciation for Gandhian principles of nonviolence and the potential of mass movements to affect social change. Upon his return to the United States in 1953, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Connecticut, serving one term from 1959 to 1961. He worked with the John F. Kennedy administration as undersecretary of state and was reappointed as ambassador to India in 1963, a position he held until 1969.
Bowles wrote King in 1957, urging him to go to India and offering to put him in contact with people who had worked with Gandhi, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Bowles compared King’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott to the nonviolent campaigns led by Gandhi, stating: “In America you are developing techniques which will not only establish American Negroes as first class citizens, but will do this in a way that earns the respect of all Americans, North and South, white and Negro. The Gandhian method achieves this object not by hurting anyone but by making everyone better” (Bowles, 28 January 1957).
Bowles was the first to telephone Coretta Scott King on behalf of the John F. Kennedy campaign during the 1960 presidential race, offering support after King was sentenced to four months in prison following a parole violation. Bowles, with help from King, Harris Wofford, and Bayard Rustin, used his position as chairman of the 1960 Democratic Platform Committee to draft the strongest civil rights policy ever adopted by the Democratic Party. Following his retirement in 1969, Bowles continued to publish books. His last book, Mission to India, was published in 1974.