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 non-violent 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.
That same year, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister, made a short visit to the United States. Although unable to arrange a meeting with King, Nehru made inquiries through his diplomatic representatives concerning the possibility of King visiting India in the future. 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. While King made travel plans from Montgomery, the 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, began arranging for King to meet with Indian officials and Gandhian activists during his stay.
On 3 February 1959, King, his wife Coretta Scott King, and Lawrence Reddick, began a five week tour of India. Upon their arrival at New Delhi’s Palam Airport on 10 February, King was feted 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). Throughout their visit, King, Coretta, and Reddick received invitations to hundreds of engagements. “We received a most enthusiastic reception and the most generous hospitality imaginable. Almost every door was open so that our party,” King recalled, “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).
King’s popularity in India revealed the extent to which the Montgomery bus boycott had been covered in India and throughout the world. “We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset,” King recalled. “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 experiences with racism and common philosophy of liberation sparked numerous conversations, and King shared his views on the race question before university groups and at public meetings. In addition, King discussed his views of nonviolence with various heads of state, including Nehru and India’s vice president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
Gandhians accepted King openly and praised him for his efforts in Montgomery, which they looked upon as an example of the potential of nonviolence outside of India. King’s meetings with satyagrahis and his interactions with the Gandhi family reinforced his belief in the power of nonviolent resistance and its potential usefulness throughout the world—even against totalitarian regimes. In a discussion with African students who were studying in India, King talked about the true nature of nonviolent resistance (Papers 5:234).
As he traveled throughout India, King reflected 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. But in America, every day some leader endorses racial segregation” (Papers 5:143).
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.
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.