The Gandhi Society for Human Rights (also known as the Gandhi Society) was the brainchild of Harry Wachtel, a prominent New York attorney who was introduced to Martin Luther King, Jr., by Clarence B. Jones, King’s trusted legal advisor. Upon King’s solicitation, Wachtel joined Jones in defending four ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in a libel suit, New York Times v. Sullivan, stemming from an advertisement in the New York Times. Wachtel met with King in New York in early 1962 and discussed the formation of a tax-exempt fund to cover expenses related to the suit and to channel needed financial support to the nonviolent civil rights movement. With King’s endorsement, Wachtel, Jones, and another New York lawyer, Theodore W. Kheel, founded the Gandhi Society for Human Rights. King was made honorary president, and Jones functioned as general counsel and acting executive director.
The founders arranged to launch the Gandhi Society at a luncheon at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., on 17 May 1962. King invited a number of distinguished individuals to serve on the board of directors and attend the luncheon, based on Jones’ insistence that the publicity generated would benefit the society. Senators Jacob Javits (R-NY), Clifford Case (R-NJ), and Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) accepted invitations to serve as honored guests at the luncheon.
King and Kheel, acting president of the Gandhi Society, spoke at the luncheon of about 90 people. King noted that 17 May marked the anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that made school segregation unconstitutional; and that 1962 was the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which paved the way for the abolition of slavery; and of Henry David Thoreau’s death, whose ideas on civil disobedience inspired Mahatma Gandhi. King told the luncheon that “on these overlapping anniversaries of liberal triumphs,” it was fitting to “form a new society dedicated to progress through non-violence” which “is [now] woven into the fabric of American life” (King, 17 May 1962). King also revealed that earlier in the day SCLC had sent President John F. Kennedy a “landmark” document asking for the issuance of an executive order proclaiming all forms of segregation to be contrary to the U.S. Constitution (King, 17 May 1962).
On 29 June 1962, the first informal meeting of the new organization’s board of directors was held in New York. An executive committee elected that day, which included King, went on to write a mission statement defining the activities of the society to include legal defense and aid for civil rights cases, educational materials propagating nonviolent methods and voter registration activities, and financial assistance to other organizations for civil rights projects. Mordecai Johnson, president emeritus of Howard University; William Kunstler, special counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union; and Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, were some of the distinguished members of the Gandhi Society’s board.
The Gandhi Society was not without its detractors. Christian Century published a 13 June 1962 editorial that accused King of channeling reformist energies toward “a new kind of American sectarianism” (“A Gandhi Society?”). King vehemently denied these accusations in a letter to the editor, stating that Gandhi, “a man who never embraced Christianity,” was “the greatest Christian of the modern world” (King, 27 June 1962).
By January 1964, the organization’s financial situation led Jones to secure a $6,000 loan to cover the organization's overdrawn back account. King later donated $25,000 of his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize money to the Gandhi Society. Federal inaction in processing the society’s application for tax-exempt status continued to hinder its fundraising activities. Wachtel reported to King on 11 August 1965 that the nonprofit status had been granted by the U.S. Treasury Department, but just a few days later he wrote to King of the many other difficulties facing the organization. In September 1965, Wachtel formally proposed that the Society be renamed the American Foundation on Nonviolence and reconstituted with former board members of the Gandhi Society. The name was changed later that year.
“A Gandhi Society?” Christian Century 79 (13 June 1962): 735–736.
“Gandhi Society Explained,” Christian Century 79 (1 August 1962): 929–930.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
King, Address at the Formation of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, 17 May 1962, MLKP-MBU.
King to Harold Edward Fey, 27 June 1962, CCFA-ICarbS.