Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Upon his death, Mohandas K. Gandhi was hailed by the London Times as “the most influential figure India has produced for generations” (“Mr. Gandhi”). Gandhi protested against racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India using nonviolent resistance. A testament to the revolutionary power of nonviolence, Gandhi’s approach directly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that the Gandhian philosophy was “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” (Papers 4:478).
King first encountered Gandhian ideas during his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary. In a talk prepared for George Davis’ class, Christian Theology for Today, King included Gandhi among “individuals who greatly reveal the working of the Spirit of God” (Papers 1:249). In 1950, King heard Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, speak of his recent trip to India and Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance techniques. King situated Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolent direct action in the larger framework of Christianity, declaring that “Christ showed us the way and Gandhi in India showed it could work” (Rowland, “2,500 Here Hail Boycott Leader”). He later remarked that he considered Gandhi to be “the greatest Christian of the modern world” (King, 23 June 1962).
Gandhi was born 2 October 1869, in Porbandar, in the western part of India, to Karamchand Gandhi, chief minister of Porbandar, and his wife Putlibai, a devout Hindu. At the age of 18, Gandhi began training as a lawyer in England. After completing his barrister’s degree he returned to India in 1891, but was unable to find well-paid work. In 1893, he accepted a one-year contract to do legal work for an Indian firm in South Africa, but remained for 21 years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was first exposed to official racial prejudice, and where he developed his philosophy of nonviolent direct action by organizing the Indian community there to oppose race-based laws and socioeconomic repression.
Gandhi returned to India in 1914. In 1919, British authorities issued the Rowlatt Acts, policies that permitted the incarceration without trial of Indians suspected of sedition. In response, Gandhi called for a day of national fasting, meetings, and suspension of work on 6 April 1919, as an act of satyagraha (literally, truth-force or love-force), a form of nonviolent resistance. He suspended the campaign of nonviolent resistance a few days later because protestors had responded violently to the police.
Within the next few years, Gandhi reshaped the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement promoting Indian self-rule through a boycott of British goods and institutions, and leading to the arrests of thousands of satyagrahis. In March 1922, Gandhi was arrested and served two years in prison for sedition.
Gandhi resumed leadership of the Indian National Congress Party in late 1928. In the spring of 1930, Gandhi and 80 volunteers began a 200-mile march to the sea, where they produced salt from seawater to defy the British Salt Laws, which ensured that the British colonial government recovered a tax from the sale of salt. Over 60,000 Indians eventually subjected themselves to imprisonment by making salt. After a year of struggle, Gandhi negotiated a truce with the British government’s representative, Lord Irwin, and ended the civil disobedience campaign.
By late 1931, Irwin’s successor had resumed political repression. Gandhi revived the satyagraha movement and was soon imprisoned by the British government. While in prison, Gandhi fasted to protest the policy of separate electorates for “untouchables,” India’s lowest caste, within India’s new constitution. The fast elicited public attention and resulted in a historic 1947 resolution making the practice of discrimination against untouchables illegal. In August 1947, Britain transferred governing power to a partitioned India, creating the two independent states of India and Pakistan. Despite Gandhi’s urgings, partition was accompanied by violence and rioting. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was assassinated while entering a prayer meeting in Delhi.
Gandhi and his philosophy were of special interest to the progressive African American community. Referring to the African American freedom struggle, Gandhi had called the practice of segregation “a negation of civilisation” (“Letter from Gandhi”). Howard Thurman met with Gandhi in 1935, Benjamin Mays in 1936, and William Stuart Nelson in 1946. King’s colleagues Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, and Mordecai Johnson had also visited India.
Gandhi’s philosophy directly influenced King, who first employed strategies of nonviolent direct action in the 1955 to 1956 Montgomery bus boycott. In 1959, King traveled to India with his wife, Coretta Scott King, and Lawrence D. Reddick on a visit co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Gandhi Memorial Fund). King met with the Gandhi family, as well as with Indian activists and officials, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, during the five-week trip. In his 1959 Palm Sunday sermon, King preached on the significance of Gandhi’s 1928 salt march and his fast to end discrimination against India’s untouchables. King ultimately believed that the Gandhian approach of nonviolent resistance would “bring about a solution to the race problem in America” (Papers 4:355).
Introduction, in Papers 5:3.
King, “His Influence Speaks to World Conscience,” 30 January 1958, in Papers 4:354–355.
King, “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” 1 September 1958, in Papers 4:473–481.
King, Palm Sunday Sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi, Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 22 March 1959, in Papers 5:145–157.
King, “Six Talks in Outline,” 13 September–23 November 1949, in Papers 1:242–251.
King to Harold Edward Fey, 23 June 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
“Letter from Gandhi,” Baltimore Afro-American, 7 February 1948.
“Mr. Gandhi,” London Times, 31 January 1948.
Stanley Rowland, Jr., “2,500 Here Hail Boycott Leader,” New York Times, 26 March 1956.