Pacifist, writer, and activist Richard Gregg was the first American to publish a book on nonviolence. Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence, published in 1934, explained Gandhi’s nonviolent principles and his methodology of social change. In the foreword to the book’s second edition (1959), Martin Luther King affirmed that “new ways of solving conflicts, without violence, must be discovered and put into operation” (Papers 5:99). In 1957, when King was asked by an official from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to name the books that most influenced him, he included Gregg’s book along with those of Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Walter Rauschenbusch.
Gregg was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1885. He attended Harvard, receiving his BA in 1907 and a law degree in 1911. His work in industrial relations led him to read Gandhi’s work and travel to India in 1925 to study with him. Gregg spent four years in India, including seven months at Gandhi’s ashram. Upon his return, he wrote The Power of Nonviolence. Gregg was involved in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) throughout most of his adult life and influenced many of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality.
When the Montgomery bus boycott first began, nonviolence was not mentioned at the mass meetings, and many of the leaders had armed guards protecting them. Former FOR staff member Bayard Rustin arrived during the boycott’s third month and encouraged King to make a philosophical commitment to nonviolence. When FOR’s Glenn Smiley arrived shortly thereafter, he brought with him The Power of Nonviolence. King read it immediately and wrote Gregg, “I don’t know when I have read anything that has given the idea of non-violence a more realistic and depthful interpretation. I assure you that it will be a lasting influence in my life” (Papers 3:244–245).
King and Gregg corresponded on the application of nonviolence in Montgomery. Gregg cautioned King not to despair if there were failures in discipline during the protest, reminding him that Gandhi also faced this. “You are doing something big enough to call for all your energy and devotion and endurance,” he told King. “The whole world will be grateful to you” (Papers 3:268). Gregg traveled to India again and reported to King after the boycott that he “heard echoes of [his] struggle in Montgomery” (Gregg, 27 October 1958). Gregg also provided King with the names of people to meet when he traveled to India in 1959.
Gregg to King, 20 May 1956, in Papers 3:267–269.
Gregg to King, 27 October 1958, MLKP-MBU.
King, Foreword to Richard B. Gregg, Power of Nonviolence, 1959, in Papers 5:99.
King to Gregg, 1 May 1956, in Papers 3:244–245.
King to Gregg, 18 December 1958, in Papers 4:547–549.
Joseph Kip Kosek, “Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence,” Journal of American History, 91, no. 4 (2005): 1318–1348.