The first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and had advocated for India’s release from British rule. Nehru’s political and social work helped create an independent India in 1947, and inspired Martin Luther King in his own struggle for the freedom of African Americans in the United States. During King’s 1959 India trip, which he called “one of the most concentrated and eye-opening experiences” of his life, he met with Nehru (Papers 5:232).
Nehru, the son of a wealthy barrister and politician, was born on 14 November 1889, in Allahabad, India. The eldest of three children, Nehru was home schooled until the age of 15, when he continued his education in England. He received a BA (1910) from Trinity College, Cambridge, and, after studying law at Inner Temple in London, Nehru was called to the bar in 1912, and returned to India to practice law. Following his return to India, Nehru joined Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement and, in 1923, became general secretary of the All-India Congress Committee.
Nehru served as a source of inspiration for King during the Montgomery bus boycott. A year before the two men met, King inscribed a copy of his newly published book, Stride Toward Freedom, to Nehru with the words: “In appreciation for your genuine good-will, your broad humanitarian concern, and the inspiration that your great struggle for India gave to me and the 50,000 Negroes of Montgomery” (King, November 1958). King and Nehru met on 10 February 1959, at the prime minister’s home. During that visit Nehru and King discussed the possibility of Indian universities providing assistance for African American students. Although Nehru supported the proposal, he acknowledged that “nobody in poor India had thought about offering scholarships for students from rich America” (Reddick, 1968). The two men also discussed methods that relied on nonviolence, and the vitality of Gandhianism throughout India.
Nehru and King maintained a casual correspondence until Nehru’s death in May 1964. In a telegram to Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, King said that the prime minister’s death was a “great loss to the whole world” and that “generations yet unborn will be inspired by his noble life” (King, 27 May 1964). Writing in The Legacy of Nehru: A Memorial Tribute, published the year after Nehru’s death, King said: “In all of these struggles of mankind to rise to a true state of civilization, the towering figure of Nehru sits unseen but felt at all council tables. He is missed by the world, and because he is so wanted, he is a living force in the tremulous world of today” (King, 67).
Nehru’s legacy was carried on by his only child, Indira Gandhi, who served as the third prime minister of independent India until her assassination in 1984. Today Nehru’s powerful influence in India is still widely acknowledged.
King, Inscription to Nehru, November 1958, LDPF-GAMK.
King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” July 1959, in Papers 5:231–238.
King to Gandhi, 27 May 1964, SCLCE-GEU-S.
Nehru, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” in Legacy of Nehru, ed. Natwar-Singh, 1965.
Nehru, Toward Freedom, 1941.
Nehru to King, 14 January 1959, in Papers 5:107–108.
“Notes for Conversation between King and Nehru,” 10 February 1959, in Papers 5:130.
Reddick, “With King through India: A Personal Memoir,” 1968, LDRP-NN-Sc.