From the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to India’s Mahatma Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change” (Papers 5:231). Following the success of the boycott in 1956, King contemplated traveling to India to deepen his understanding of Gandhian principles. To King, “India is the land where the techniques of nonviolent social change were developed that my people have used in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere throughout the American South” (Press Conference 02.10).
That same year, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister, made a short visit to the United States. Though unable to meet with King, Nehru inquired through diplomatic representatives concerning the possibility of King traveling to India in the future. King’s other obligations intervened with his schedule each time he intended to travel: traveling to Ghana, finishing the memoir Stride Toward Freedom, and addressing Izola Ware Curry’s attack in Harlem. As he slowly recovered from this last near-fatal encounter, King decided it was opportune to move forward with his India plans.
King secured funds for his trip to India from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Co-sponsors of King’s trip, the American Friends Service Committee and the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Gandhi National Memorial Fund), headed by Secretary G. Ramachandran, arranged King’s meetings with Indian officials and Gandhian activists.
On 3 February 1959, King, his wife Coretta Scott King, and his MIA colleague Lawrence Reddick, departed for a five-week tour in India. After minor weather delays, the King party finally arrived in New Delhi’s Palam Airport on 10 February, welcomed by G. Ramachandran and Sucheta Kripalani of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi.
King told a group of reporters gathered at the airport, “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim” (Papers 5:126). During his time in Delhi, King discussed his perspectives on nonviolence with various heads of state: prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and vice president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. According to Coretta Scott King, he compared the sessions with the founders of independent India to “meeting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in a single day" (My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.).
King shared reminiscences with Gandhi's close comrades, who openly praised him for his efforts in Montgomery, influencing nonviolent philosophies in global spheres of conflict. King’s meetings with satyagrahis and his interactions with the Gandhi family reinforced his belief in the power of passive resistance and its potential usefulness throughout the world—even against totalitarian regimes. In discussion with students at New Delhi University, King talked about the true nature of nonviolent resistance, noting that “we are going through the most exciting and most momentous period of history” (Papers 5:234).
As King left the capital, he ventured onto Patna and Gaya, discussing decentralist ideologies with independence activist Jayaprakash Narayan and visiting Budh Gaya’s historic Buddhist temple. After passing through Shantiniketan to Calcutta, King inquired the press about their perspectives on problems in India and the persistence of Gandhian influences in society. In a crowded student meeting, he emphasized colored people’s struggle for freedom and justice around the world. “We have come a long, long way,” King said, “but we have a long, long way to go” (Bristol's Diary).
In Madras, he met Swami Vishwananda, an individual at the heart of the nonviolent movement to eradicate untouchability ideologies. Vishwananda, like many others, expressed his gratitude for King’s visit and his fight for justice and equality. On February 20th, King arrived at Gandhigram and listened to scriptures from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist sources. Unlike other major addresses, King’s devotional message was translated for his audience.
After leaving Gandhigram, the Kings visited the Gramdan and Harijan villages, where he engaged in discussions of policy decisions and inspirational leadership of the highest order. In conversations, King joined in common Indian practices and witnessed how N.E.S Block Workers provided aid to villagers. Traveling to the southern tip of India, the Kings briefly journeyed to Cape Comorin near Trivandrum. He later accounted, “This is the point where the land of India ends and the vast and rolling waters of the ocean have their beginning. It is one of the most beautiful points in the world.” By the time they flew to Bangalore on 24 February, Bristol had observed that “both the Kings (especially King himself) are JUST PLAIN EXHAUSTED and very understandable have been so for months before coming to India” (Bristol's Diary).
One of King’s most memorable experiences was residing at Mani Bhaven, Gandhi’s Bombay residence. He noted in the guestbook: “To have the opportunity of sleeping in the house where Gandhiji slept is really an experience I will never forget” (Papers 5:134). At a later meeting with African students in Bombay, King defended the use of nonviolence as a more effective tool of resistance. “They felt that non-violent resistance could only work in a situation where the resisters had a potential ally in the conscious of the opponent,” King accounted. Instead, he discovered that “they, like many other students, tended to confuse passive resistance with non-resistance” (Papers 5:234).
King delivered one of his most moving speeches at the Bombay public meeting on the 27th, during which he challenged the assumption of “people being adjusted to their environment.” Instead, Bristol recalled King speaking of “the suffering, the exploitation, the injustice, and the degradation of human beings” (Bristol's Diary). Calling upon the people to resist the social evils of their time, King moved the crowd with his words as the room buzzed with a sense of chemistry. On March 1, the Kings traveled to Ahmedabad, where they visited the Sabarmati ashram founded by Gandhi and where he began his 1930 Salt March to the sea. Vishwananda recalled that “the Kings had a great experience going round the hallowed place and meeting in prayer the six hundred” residents, many of whom were untouchables. On 3 March, King drove to Kishangarh, where they met with Vinoba Bhave, the leader of the Indian Bhoodan movement. King pressed Bhave about the limitations of nonviolence, to which he responded, “non-violence and its effective appeal to others require faith. Mere arguments and persuasion are not enough” ("Bristol to Johnson")
King finished off the last leg of his trip by returning to Delhi. On 9 March, he made a farewell address to reporters at the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, which later broadcasted on All India Radio. During the speech, King reflected “that the spirit of Gandhi is much stronger today than some people believe" (Farewell Statement).
Throughout King’s travels, he began reflecting on the similarities and differences between India and the United States. He observed that although India was rife with poverty, overpopulation, and unemployment, the country nonetheless had a low crime rate and strong spiritual quality. Moreover, the bourgeoisie—whether white, black, or brown—had similar opportunities. Upon his return from India, King compared the discrimination of India’s untouchables with America’s race problems, noting that India’s leaders publicly endorsed integration laws. “This has not been done so largely in America,” King wrote. He added, “Today no leader in India would dare to make a public endorsement of untouchability. However, in America, every day some leader endorses racial segregation” (Papers 5:143).
In India, King, Coretta, and Reddick received invitations to hundreds of engagements. “We received a most enthusiastic reception and the most generous hospitality imaginable, King would recall. “Almost every door was open so that our party was able to see some of India’s most important social experiments and talk with leaders in and out of Government, ranging from Prime Minister Nehru to village councilmen and Vinoba Bhave, the sainted leader of the land reform movement” (Papers 5:143).
The coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott by Indian publications fostered King’s popularity through the nation, welcoming supporters at every leg of the trip. “We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset,” King remembered. “But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism” (Papers 5:233). The African American and Indian overlapping minority experiences drove conversations of racialism and imperialism. Shared philosophies of liberation sparked numerous conversations as King shared his views on the race question before numerous public meetings.
King’s trip to India had a profound influence on his understanding of nonviolent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected: “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation” (Papers 5:136).
Account by Lawrence Dunbar Reddick of Press Conference in New Delhi on 10 February 1959, in Papers 5:125–129.
James E. Bristol to Dorothy Bristol, 25 February 1959.
James E. Bristol to Corinne B. Johnson, 17 April 1959.
James E. Bristol's Tour Diary with Martin Luther King, Jr., Febraury—March 1959
Introduction, in Papers 5:4–7.
King, Farewell Statement for All India Radio, 9 March 1959, in Papers 5:135–136.
King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” July 1959, in Papers 5:231–238.
King, Statement Upon Return from India, 18 March 1959, in Papers 5:142–143.
(Scott) King, My Life with Martin Luther, Jr.,1969.
Vishwananda, "I Go Round with the Kings," p. 7.