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Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India, to meet and talk with and speak to thousands and thousands of people all over that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.

  • February 3, 1959 The Kings, accompanied by Dr. L. D. Reddick, embark for India
  • February 10 After a stay in Paris King party arrives in India and has dinner with Prime Minister Nehru
  • March 10 Departure from India to Jerusalem and Cairo
  • March 18 Return to United States

For a long time I had wanted to take a trip to India. Even as a child, the entire Orient held a strange fascination for me-the elephants, the tigers, the temples, the snake charmers, and all the other storybook characters.

While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India's Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change. So as soon as our victory over bus segregation was won, some of my friends said: "Why don't you go to India and see for yourself what the Mahatma, whom you so admire, has wrought?"

In 1956 when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minister, made a short visit to the United States, he was gracious enough to say that he wished that he and I had met. His diplomatic representatives made inquiries as to the possibility of my visiting his country some time. Our former American ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, wrote me along the same lines. 

But every time that I was about to make the trip, something would interfere. At one time it was my visit by prior commitment to Ghana. At another time my publishers were pressing me to finish writing Stride Toward Freedom.Then along came Mrs. Izola Ware Curry. She not only knocked out the travel plans that I had but almost everything else as well.

After I recovered from this near-fatal encounter and was finally released by my doctors, it occurred to me that it might be better to get in the trip to India before plunging too deeply once again into the sea of the Southern segregation struggle. 

I preferred not to take this long trip alone and asked my wife and my friend, Lawrence Reddick, to accompany me. Coretta was particularly interested in the women of India, and Dr. Reddick in the history and government of that great country. He had written my biography, Crusader Without Violence, and said that my true test would come when the people who knew Gandhi looked me over and passed judgment upon me and the Montgomery movement. The three of us made up a sort of three-headed team with six eyes and six ears for looking and listening. 

And so on February 3, 1959, just before midnight, we left New York by plane. En route we stopped in Paris with Richard Wright, an old friend of Reddick's, who brought us up to date on European attitudes on the Negro question and gave us a taste of the best French cooking. 

We missed our plane connection in Switzerland because of fog, and arrived in India after a roundabout route, two days late. But from the time we came down out of the clouds at Bombay on February 10, until March 10, when we waved good-bye at the New Delhi airport, we had one of the most concentrated and eye-opening experiences of our lives. 

We were looked upon as brothers

We had a grand reception in India. The people showered upon us the most generous hospitality imaginable. 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. Since our pictures were in the newspapers very often it was not unusual for us to be recognized by crowds in public places and on public conveyances. Occasionally I would take a morning walk in the large cities, and out of the most unexpected places someone would emerge and ask: "Are you Martin Luther King?" 

We had hundreds of invitations that the limited time did not allow us to accept. We were looked upon as brothers, with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and, colonial peoples in America, Africa, and Asia struggling to throw off racism and imperialism. 

We had the opportunity to share our views with thousands of Indian people through endless conversations and numerous discussion sessions. I spoke before university groups and public meetings all over India. Because of the keen interest that the Indian people have in the race problem these meetings were usually packed. Occasionally interpreters were used, but on the whole I spoke to audiences that understood English. 

The Indian people love to listen to the Negro spirituals. Therefore, Coretta ended up singing as much as I lectured. We discovered that autograph seekers are not confined to America. After appearances in public meetings and while visiting villages, we were often besieged for autographs. Even while riding planes, more than once pilots came into the cabin from the cockpit requesting our signatures. We got good press throughout our stay. Thanks to the Indian papers, the Montgomery bus boycott was already well known in that country. Indian publications perhaps gave a better continuity of our 381-day bus strike than did most of our papers in the United States.

We held press conferences in all of the larger cities-Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay-and talked with newspapermen almost everywhere we went. They asked sharp questions and at times appeared to be hostile, but that was just their way of bringing out the story that they were after. As reporters, they were scrupulously fair with us and in their editorials showed an amazing grasp of what was going on in America and other parts of the world.

Reflections on India Trip

How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that of India's 400 million people, more than 365 million make an annual income of less than sixty dollars a year? Most of these people have never seen a doctor or a dentist. 

As I looked at these conditions, I found myself saying that we in America cannot stand idly by and not be concerned. Then something within me cried out, "Oh, no, because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India-with the destiny of every other nation." And I remembered that we spend more than a million dollars a day to store surplus food in this country. I said to myself, "I know where we can store that food free of charge-in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people who go to bed hungry at night." Maybe we spend too much of our national budget building military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Address at Lincoln University, June 6, 1961

Crowded humanity

India is a vast country with vast problems. We flew over the long stretches, from north to south, east to west; we took trains for shorter jumps and used automobiles and jeeps to get us into the less accessible places. 

Everywhere we went we saw crowded humanity-on the roads, in the city streets and squares, even in the villages. Most of the people were poor and poorly dressed. In the city of Bombay, for example, over a half million people-mostly unattached, unemployed, or partially employed males-slept out of doors every night. 

Great ills flowed from the poverty of India but strangely there was relatively little crime. This was another concrete manifestation of the wonderful spiritual quality of the Indian people. They were poor, jammed together, and half-starved, but they did not take it out on each other. 

In contrast to the poverty-stricken, there were Indians who were rich, had luxurious homes, landed estates, fine clothes, and showed evidence of overeating. The bourgeoise-white, black, or brownbehaves about the same the world over.

India's leaders, in and out of government, were conscious of their country's other great problems and were heroically grappling with them. The country seemed to be divided. Some said that India should become Westernized and modernized as quickly as possible so that she might raise her standards of living. On the other hand, there were others-perhaps the majority-who said that Westernization would bring with it the evils of materialism, cutthroat competition, and rugged individualism. They said that India would lose her soul if she took to chasing Yankee dollars, and that the big machine would only raise the living standard of the comparatively few workers who got jobs, but the greater number of people would be displaced.

Prime Minister Nehru, at once an intellectual and a man charged with the practical responsibility of heading the government, seemed to steer a middle course between these extreme attitudes. In our talk with him he indicated that he felt that some industrialization was absolutely necessary; that there were some things that only big or heavy industry could do for the country but that if the state kept a watchful eye on the developments, most of the pitfalls might be avoided. At the same time, Mr. Nehru gave support to the movement that would encourage and expand the handicraft arts such as spinning and weaving in homes and villages and thus leave as much economic self-help and autonomy as possible to the local community.

That night we had dinner with Prime Minister Nehru; with us as a guest was Lady Mountbatten, the wife of Lord Mountbatten, who was viceroy of India when it received its independence. They were lasting friends only because Gandhi followed the way of love and nonviolence. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.

Sermon on Mahatma Gandhi

If you ask people in India why is it that Mahatma Gandhi was able to do what he did in India, they will say they followed him because of his absolute sincerity and his absolute dedication. Here was a man who achieved in his lifetime this bridging of the gulf between the ego and the id. Gandhi had the amazing capacity for self-criticism. This was true in individual life, in his family life, and was true in his people's life. Gandhi criticized himself when he needed it. And whenever he made a mistake, he confessed it publicly. Here was a man who would say to his people: I'm not perfect, I'm not infallible, I don't want you to start a religion around me, I'm not a god. And I'm convinced today that there would be a religion around Gandhi, if Gandhi had not insisted, all through his life: I don't want a religion around me because I'm too human, I'm too fallible, never think I'm infallible. And any time he made a mistake, even in his personal life, or even a decision that he made in the independence struggle, he came out in the public and said, "I made a mistake."

March 22, 1959, Montgomery 

The Bhoodanists

There was a great movement in India that is almost unknown in America. At its center was the campaign for land reform known as Bhoodan. It would solve India's great economic and social change by consent, not by force. The Bhoodanists were led by the sainted Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, a highly sensitive intellectual who was trained in American colleges. Their ideal was the selfsufficient village. Their program envisioned persuading large landowners to give up some of their holdings to landless peasants; persuading small landowners to give up their individual ownership for common cooperative ownership by the villages; and encouraging farmers and villagers to spin and weave the cloth for their own clothes during their spare time from their agricultural pursuits. Since these measures would answer the questions of employment, food, and clothing, the village could then, through cooperative action, make just about everything that it would need or get it through barter or exchange from other villages. Accordingly, each village would be virtually self-sufficient and would thus free itself from the domination of the urban centers that were like evil loadstones drawing the people away from the rural areas, concentrating them in city slums, and debauching them with urban vices. At least this was the argument of the Bhoodanists and other Gandhians. 

Such ideas sound strange and archaic to Western ears. However, the Indians have already achieved greater results than we American would ever expect. For example, millions of acres of land have been given up by rich landlords and additional millions of acres have been given up to cooperative management by small farmers. On the other hand, the Bhoodanists shrink from giving their movement the organization and drive that we in America would venture to guess that it must have in order to keep pace with the magnitude of the problems that everybody is trying to solve.

It would be a boon to democracy if one of the great nations of the world, with almost four hundred million people, proves that it is possible to provide a good living for everyone without surrendering to a dictatorship of either the "right" or "left." India is a tremendous force for peace and nonviolence, at home and abroad. It is a land where the idealist and the intellectual are yet respected. We should want to help India preserve her soul and thus help to save our own.

The light that can shine through all the darkness

On February 22, Mrs. King and I journeyed down to a city in India called Trivandrum. Then we went from Trivandrum down to a point known as Cape Comorin. This is where the mass of India ends and the vast rolling waters of the ocean have their beginning. It is one of the most beautiful parts of all the world. Three great bodies of water meet together in all of their majestic splendor: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

I remember how we went out there and looked at the big old rocks, a sight that was truly incredible, out into the waters, out into the ocean. Seated on a huge rock that slightly protruded into the ocean, we were enthralled by the vastness of the ocean and its terrifying immensities. We looked at the waves of those great bodies of water as they unfolded in almost rhythmic suspension. As the waves crashed against the base of the rock on which we were seated, an oceanic music brought sweetness to the ear. To the west we saw the magnificent sun, a red cosmic ball of fire, appear to sink into the very ocean itself. Just as it was almost lost from sight, Coretta touched me and said, "Look, Martin, isn't that beautiful!" I looked around and saw the moon, another ball of scintillating beauty. As the sun appeared to be sinking into the ocean, the moon appeared to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfed the earth, but in the east the radiant light of the rising moon shone supreme. This was, as I said, one of the most beautiful parts in all the world, and that happened to be one of those days when the moon was full. This is one of the few points in all the world where you can see the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon simultaneously.

I looked at that and something came to my mind and I had to share it with Coretta, Dr. Reddick, and other people who were accompanying us around at that point. God has the light that can shine through all the darkness. We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light which shines even in the darkness, and "the spear of frustration" is transformed "into a shaft of light."

Statement on Leaving India

I wish to make a plea to the people and government of India. The issue of world peace is so critical that I feel compelled to offer a suggestion that came to me during the course of our conversations with Vinoba Bhave. The peace-loving peoples of the world have not yet succeeded in persuading my own country, America, and Soviet Russia to eliminate fear and disarm themselves. Unfortunately, as yet America and the Soviet Union have not shown the faith and moral courage to do this. Vinoba Bhave has said that India or any other nation that has the faith and moral courage could disarm itself tomorrow, even unilaterally. It may be that just as India had to take the lead and show the world that national independence could be achieved nonviolently, so India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament, and if no other nation will join her immediately, India should declare itself for disarmament unilaterally. Such an act of courage would be a great demonstration of the spirit of the Mahatma and would be the greatest stimulus to the rest of the world to do likewise.

March 9, 1959

Gandhians accepted us with open arms

On March 1 we had the privilege of spending a day at the Amniabad ashram and stood there at the point where Gandhi started his walk of 218 miles to a place called Bambi. He started there walking with eight people. Gradually the number grew to millions and millions. Gandhi went on and reached down in the river and brought up a little salt in his hands to demonstrate and dramatize the fact that they were breaking this law in protest against the injustices they had faced over all the years with these salt laws. And Gandhi said to his people: "If you are hit, don't hit back; even if they shoot at you, don't shoot back. If they curse you, don't curse back. Just keep moving. Some of us might have to die before we get there. Some of us might be thrown in jail before we get there, but let's just keep moving." And they kept moving and walked and walked, and millions of them came together.


Gandhi was able to mobilize and galvanize more people in his lifetime than any other person in the history of this world. And just with a little love and understanding goodwill and a refusal to cooperate with an evil law, he was able to break the backbone of the British Empire. This, I think, was one of the most significant things that ever happened in the history of the world. More than 390 million people achieved their freedom, and they achieved it nonviolently. 

I was delighted that the Gandhians accepted us with open arms. They praised our experiment with the nonviolent resistance technique at Montgomery. They seemed to look upon it as an outstanding example of the possibilities of its use in Western civilization. To them, as to me, it also suggested that nonviolent resistance when planned and positive in action could work effectively even under totalitarian regimes. 

We argued this point at some length with the groups of African students who were studying in India. They felt that nonviolent resistance could only work in a situation where the resisters had a potential ally in the conscience of the opponent. We soon discovered that they, like many others, tended to confuse passive resistance with nonresistance. This is completely wrong. True nonviolent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

"I am an Untouchable"

I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables ....

The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, "Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America." And for a moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable ....

I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attending inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities. And I said to myself, "Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable."

From sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, July 4, 1965

The problem of the untouchables

We went in some little villages, and in these villages, we saw hundreds of people sleeping on the ground; they didn't have any beds to sleep in. There was no running water there, nothing to wash with. We looked in these villages and we saw people there in their little huts and their little rooms, and their cows slept in the same room with them. If they had a few chickens-the chickens slept in the same room with them. We looked at these people. They had nothing that we would consider convenient, none of the comforts of life. Here they were, sleeping in the same room with the beasts of the field; this was all they had. 

Pretty soon we discovered that these people were the untouchables. This caste system had existed for years. These were the people who worked hardest, and they were trampled over even by the Indian people themselves. 

Gandhi looked at this system and couldn't stand it. He looked at his people and said, "Now you have selected me, and you've asked me to free you from the political domination and the economic exploitation inflicted upon you by Britain, and here you are, trampling over and exploiting seventy million of your brothers." And he decided that he would not ever adjust to that system, and that he would speak against it and stand up against it the rest of his life.

The first thing he did was to adopt an untouchable girl as his daughter. His wife-a member of one of the high castes-thought he was going crazy. She said, "What in the world are you doing adopting an untouchable? We are not supposed to touch these people." And he said, "I am going to have this young lady as my daughter." He brought her into his ashram, and she lived there. He demonstrated in his own life that untouchability had to go. 

One day Mahatma Gandhi stood before his people and said: "You are exploiting these untouchables. Even though we are fighting with all that we have of our bodies and our souls to break loose from the bondage of the British Empire, we are exploiting these people and we are taking from them their selfhood and their self-respect." He said, "I will refuse to eat until the leaders of the caste system will come to me with the leaders of the untouchables and say that there will be an end to untouchability and the Hindu temples of India will open their doors to the untouchables." And he refused to eat, and days passed. Finally when Gandhi was about to breathe his last breath, and his body was all but gone, a group from the untouchables and a group from the Brahmin caste came to him and signed a statement saying that they would no longer adhere to the caste system. The priest of the temple came to him and said, "Now the temples will be opened to the untouchables." That afternoon, untouchables from all over India went into the temples and all of these thousands and millions of people put their arms around the Brahmins and people of other castes. Hundreds of millions of people who had never touched each other for two thousand years were now singing and praising all together. This was a great contribution that Mahatma Gandhi brought about.

Sermon on Gandhi

The world doesn't like people like Gandhi. That's strange, isn't it? They don't like people like Christ; they don't like people like Lincoln. They killed him-this man who had done all of that for India, who gave his life and who mobilized and galvanized 400 million people for independence ... . One of his own fellow Hindus felt that he was a little too favorable toward the Moslems, felt that he was giving in too much for the Moslems .... Here was the man of nonviolence, falling at the hands of a man of violence. Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man with hate. This seems the way of history. And isn't it significant that he died on the same day that Christ died? It was on Friday. And this is the story of history, but thank God it never stopped here. Thank God Good Friday is never the end. The man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity. Just as when Abraham Lincoln was shot, mark you, for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shotthat is, the attempt to heal the wounds of the divided nation-when Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by and said, "Now he belongs to the ages." The same thing could be said about Mahatma Gandhi now: He belongs to the ages.

March 22, 1959, in Montgomery

Atoning for the injustices

India appeared to be integrating its untouchables faster than the United States was integrating its Negro minority. Both countries had federal laws against discrimination, but in India the leaders of government, of religious, educational, and other institutions, had publicly endorsed the integration laws. The prime minister admitted to me that many Indians still harbored a prejudice against these long oppressed people, but that it had become unpopular to exhibit this prejudice in any form. In part, this change in climate was created through the moral leadership of the late Mahatma Gandhi. In part, it was the result of the Indian Constitution, which specified thatdiscrimination against the untouchables is a crime, punishable by imprisonment. 

The Indian government spent millions of rupees annually developing housing and job opportunities in villages heavily inhabited by untouchables. Moreover, the prime minister said, if two applicants compete for entrance into a college or university, one of the applicants being an untouchable and the other of high caste, the school is required to accept the untouchable. 

Professor Lawrence Reddick, who was with me during the interview, asked: "But isn't that discrimination?" 

"Well, it may be," the prime minister answered. "But this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people." 

From the prime minister down to the village councilmen, everybody declared publicly that untouchability is wrong. But in the United States some of our highest officials declined to render a moral judgment on segregation, and some from the South publicly boasted of their determination to maintain segregation. That would be unthinkable in India. 

Although discrimination has not yet been eliminated in India, it is a crime to practice discrimination against an untouchable. But even without this coercion, so successfully has the government made the issue a matter of moral and ethical responsibility that no government figure or political leader on any level would dare defend discriminatory practices. One could wish that we here in the United States had reached this level of morality. America must seek its own ways of atoning for the injustices she has inflicted upon her Negro citizens.

The spirit of Gandhi was very much alive in India. Some of his disciples remembered the drama of the fight for national independence and, when they look around, find no one who comes near the stature of the Mahatma. But any objective observer must report that Gandhi is not only the greatest figure in India's history, but his influence is felt in almost every aspect of life and public policy. The trip had a great impact upon me personally. It was wonderful to be in Gandhi's land, to talk with his son, his grandsons, his cousin, and other relatives; to share the reminiscences of his close comrades; to visit his ashram; to see the countless memorials for him; and, finally, to lay a wreath on his entombed ashes at Rajghat. We had learned a lot, but we were not rash enough to presume that we knew India-a vast subcontinent with all of its people, problems, contrasts, and achievements.

I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a nonviolent campaign. India won her independence, but without violence on the part of Indians. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.

I returned to America with a greater determination to achieve freedom for my people through nonviolent means. As a result of my visit to India, my understanding of nonviolence became greater and my commitment deeper.

NEXT: Chapter 14: Sit-In Movement