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What Negroes Can Learn From Gandhi

By Chester Bliss Bowles

[Chester Bliss Bowles (1901-1986), partner in a major advertising firm, liberal politician and diplomat, was United States ambassador to India, 1951-53 and 1963-69. This article was widely led during the civil rights struggle in the United States led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]


"Now let's practice it again," the Negro preacher said to members of his congregation. I'm a white man and I insult you, I shove you, may be I hit you. What do you do?"

Their answer was ready: "I keep my temper. I do not budge. I do not strike back. I turn the other cheek."

It was a December evening in 1956. After a year of walking to work and of riding in hundreds of cars organised in general pools the 42,000 Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama, had established their constitutional right to ride in non-segregated buses.

With the beginning of the next workday the new bus rules would go into effect. Now they were patiently going through demonstration sessions in their churches, pretending the pews were bus seats, learning how to apply their Christian principles to this most explosive of all problems in human relations. "Now remember," their ministers advised them, "don't crow. Don't lord it over the white riders. Show patience and respect. Do unto them as you would have them do unto you."

In the following weeks, white extremists fired shots, hurled bombs and subjected the Negroes and their leaders to a barrage of threats and insults. But they stood their ground, firm and dignified, without arrogance or bitterness.

When their victory was finally won, many white citizens who had been active in organising resistance to bus desegregation said grudgingly, "We didn't know the Negroes had the stuff to do what they've just done. We never thought we'd come to respect them, but we have."

Just how had this practical, latter-day demonstration of the Sermon on the Mount been achieved? What were the techniques which made it possible?

The Montgomery program had deep spiritual roots, not only in Christianity but in the ancient religions of Asia. Martin Luther King, the twenty-seven-year-old Negro minister who more than any other individual was responsible for its success, says frankly that he borrowed his techniques directly from Gandhi, who used them brilliantly to bring freedom to 400,000,000 Indians.

Gandhi in turn was stimulated by the views of the Russian writer, Tolstoy, and by the American, Thoreau, who was sentenced to serve in a Massachusetts prison because of his "peaceful protest" against the Fugitive Slave Laws. Indeed, it was from Thoreau's essay, Civil Disobedience, that Gandhi borrowed the phrase used widely to describe his program.

Thoreau himself was influenced by the writings of the forest wise men of India who wrote the Upanishads. These ancient Hindu writings were translated into English in the early 1800s. Thoreau read and pondered them in the Harvard College library. Thus this political technique of boycott and non-violent protest has already crossed and recrossed the ocean to strengthen hearts and to influence minds in South Asia, South Africa and in Alabama, U.S.A.

Many Americans who consider themselves hard-headed may discount the happenings in Montgomery as a special situation and scoff at the suggestion that such techniques could, in fact, ease the explosive racial antagonism that plagues so many American communities. But one thing is sure: their scepticism is no greater than that of Gandhi's contemporaries a few years before his final triumph.

When this little man in a loincloth said, "I believe it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire, to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and to lay the foundation for that empire's fall or its regeneration," there was general merriment in British and Indian ruling circles. But even the most sceptical ultimately came to honour him.

After years of jail going in resistance to unfair laws and years of hard constructive work to create the conditions of justice among the Indians themselves, he demonstrated the political power of his religious faith. By bringing that faith shrewdly and courageously to bear on the intolerable institution of colonialism he freed the Indian people. In so doing, he laid the ground work for the fall of the British colonial empire and for its regeneration in the British Commonwealth of Nations - exactly as he said he would.

There are suggestive parallels between the Montgomery boycott and the beginning of Gandhi's struggle. The movement in Montgomery started from an incident which blossomed into a crusade.

A quiet Negro seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, had been forced many times to give her bus seat to a white person. But one day, for some reason that she herself does not fully understand, she suddenly decided not to move. When the driver threatened to call the police, she said, "Then you just call them."

Mrs. Parks was arrested. Negro religious leaders called for a one-day city-wide boycott of the buses. When white extremists reacted vigorously, the protest grew until it covered the entire city bus system and involved almost every Negro family in Montgomery.

The Gandhian movement which ultimately freed India from foreign rule started in about the same way; in his case the spark which set it off was struck on a train in remote, race-conscious South Africa in 1893.

Gandhi had begun his adult career a year or so earlier as an insecure, inarticulate young attorney. While studying law in England he wore a high silk hat and took dancing lessons. In India he was so shy and frightened that he lost his first case, involving a ten-dollar claim, when he became tongue-tied before the judge and was laughed out of court.

To help him build confidence in himself, his relatively well-to-do family arranged for him to handle a lawsuit between some Indian merchants in South Africa. In Africa's fiery racial furnace something happened that transformed this twenty-four-year-old failure into an architect of history.>

When Gandhi arrived in South Africa some 100,000 Indians were living there, most of whom had been recruited as cheap labour for the European plantations and mines.

A few hundred chosen Indians had been given a right to vote, but otherwise all were second-class citizens. These were called "coolies" or "sammies" and suffered segregation. On the statute books they were described as "semi-barbarous Asiatics." Into this situation came the proud young British-educated Gandhi, insisting on his first-class ways.

The night of his first train ride in South Africa, Gandhi was ordered to leave the compartment reserved for whites. When he refused to do so, he was pushed off the train at the next station stop.

As he stood shivering there in the dark, his overcoat and baggage still on the train now fast disappearing down the tracks, Gandhi asked himself the fateful question, "Should I fight for my rights here or go back to India?"

"I came to the conclusion," he recounts, "that to run back to India would be cowardly." The "golden rule", he decided, "is to dare to do the right at any cost."

When he took the stagecoach for Pretoria he was addressed as "sammie", ordered to sit outside on a dirty sackcloth and beaten by a burly white man. When he arrived in Pretoria, the hotels refused to give him a room. It was an American Negro who befriended him and somehow found him lodgings.

The next day he invited the Indians of Pretoria to a meeting at which he proposed that they stand up and fight the discrimination against them and that the fight be conducted with new, constructive methods. This time the words came easily.

The end they must seek, Gandhi said, was a community of true neighbours. Therefore, the means must be those of persuasion and not of violence. Members of the Indian minority must forgo hatred. They must respect their white neighbours as fellow human beings even while opposing their unjust discriminatory laws. They must prepare themselves to endure blows and prison without flinching and without resort to counterblows or insults. They must persuade, not only through words but through their lives. Their words must become flesh.

"Let us begin," he suggested, "by considering the grievances held against us by the white people. Let us see if the reasons or rationalisations which the whites give for discriminating against us are justified.

"Then," he continued, "let us put our own house in order, even now while fighting for our civil rights, even before they grant the reforms we ask, even poor as we are."

Many of the Indian merchants who came to hear him were known for slick dealings and sharp bargaining. Gandhi proposed that they stick rigidly to the truth and that they show a new concern for their responsibility to the community.

All Indians, he added, must do something to improve the unsanitary conditions in the Indian slums. Why wait for legal victories "for the necessary drain cleaning?" he asked.

"We can't blame the whites," he continued, "for all our troubles, nor can we by ourselves end all the poverty in which our people are trapped. But we can begin to clean up our homes, to teach illiterate Indian adults to read and to provide free schools for the children of the poor."

By trial and error, Gandhi devised a political-action program with dramatic new dimensions. Instead of working just through the law - by appealing for an end to restrictive legislation in parliament and by seeking court or electoral victories - Gandhi showed the Indians how to combine peaceful resistance to discriminatory laws with constructive community service.

When the Boer War came, his followers urged him to step up his resistance program. The whites, they said, had their backs against the wall and now was the time to put on the pressure.

Gandhi rejected this proposal as unfair. Instead, he called off his political campaign, organised an Indian volunteer ambulance corps of 1100, and led them wherever the fighting was heaviest. For valour under fire, he and thirty-six other Indians received Empire war medals.

When the war was over he renewed his program of non-violent pressure on the government and the conflict again became intense. At one point the whites tried to lynch him, and he heard the mob singing, "We'll hang Gandhi from the sour-apple tree."

Yet Gandhi did not flinch. He led tens of thousands of Indians in a peaceful march across the state, deliberately violating the segregation laws. Hundreds were struck down by the police and thousands went to prison.

When Jan Christian Smuts, the harried leader of the South African government, offered a civil-rights compromise that seemed honourable, Gandhi accepted it despite the violent opposition of militant Indians who asserted that this was a "betrayal."

Compromise and trust, he argued, is the essence of non-violent struggle. "Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times," he said, the civil resister must be "ready to trust him for the twenty-first time - for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed."

Later, as white pressure to reject all compromise on discrimination mounted, Smuts went back on his word, as Gandhi's Indian critics said he would. Gandhi's response was to start the struggle anew. Again the jails were filled with hundreds of Indians who refused to obey discriminatory laws, but who also refused to exchange blows or insults.

Eventually, Prime Minister Smuts decided that there was no practical alternative but to reach a fair settlement with Gandhi. "You can't put twenty thousand Indians in jail," he said.

To Gandhi himself, one of Smuts' secretaries added, "I do not like your people and do not care to assist them at all. But what am I to do? You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands on you? I often wish you took to violence like the English strikers; then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy... And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness."

Before sailing home to India to apply his newly tested methods there in behalf of independence, Gandhi reminded the South African Indians that their victory was only half won. To Smuts, as a farewell present, he sent a pair of sandals that he had made while in jail as Smuts' prisoner.

Twenty-four years later on Gandhi's seventieth birthday, in 1939, Smuts, as a gesture of friendship, returned the sandals Gandhi had given him, to show that he had cherished them through the years. "I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man," wrote the first official to send Gandhi to prison. "It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect."

In Africa, Gandhi and the Indians were outnumbered ten to one. In India the situation was reversed. If 400,000,000 Indians learned to say "no" and mean it, Gandhi knew that they could end the domination of a few hundred thousand Englishmen.

But here as in South Africa, the "no", which Gandhi taught them to say, was not that of violent revolution or subversion or anarchy. Rather it was a method which taught respect for law even while resisting particular unjust laws. Peacefully, cheerfully and massively, he and his followers accepted jail as the penalty for disobeying them.

In India, as in Africa, Gandhi's program went far beyond the struggle against British domination. His goal was to build an India that could govern itself. Therefore he spent as much time training his countrymen in constructive work in the villages as in the effort to achieve national independence.

His thirteen-point program for Indian development included the end of untouchability within Hinduism, the establishment of Hindu-Moslem unity and brotherhood, and improved methods of agriculture, diet, education and public health in the 500,000 villages where most Indians lived.

Gandhi's political genius enabled him to select and dramatise issues which the people understood. In 1930 his famous salt march focused the whole independence fight on a simple demand of the Indian villager: an end to the hated British tax on salt and their prohibition of home-made salt.

When Gandhi announced that he would walk 200 miles to the shores of the Arabian Sea and make salt out of God's ocean in defiance of man's largest empire, India was electrified. Millions of peasants gathered along the roads to cheer him as he strode quickly by.

On the night of April 5, he reached the sea. "God willing," he said, "we will commence civil disobedience at 6:30 tomorrow morning." At sunrise he held his usual prayer meeting and at the appointed time reached down to raise his first handful of salt from the salt beach.

As the news was flashed across the country the excitement became intense, reaching into the most remote villages. Nehru and nearly 100,000 others were arrested.

Then Gandhi announced that he would lead a non-violent march of protest on the government salt depot. Although he, too, was promptly arrested the raid was carried out by 2500 Indians pledged not to raise their hand or voice against the police.

Although hundreds were struck down, there was no resort to counter-violence. When Gandhi in his cell heard that even the fierce Pathan Moslems from the Northwest Frontier had maintained their self-discipline he was overjoyed. Indians everywhere began to stand a little straighter, and for the first time to feel that they, as individuals, had rights, responsibilities and a future.

Gandhi chose for his home the poorest village in the poorest part of India, where untouchables predominated. His associates protested, saying that he would bury himself there. Yet Sevagram was soon accepted as the vital centre of all India, the actual capital of this ancient nation in the course of its rebirth.

When I visited his mud hut there in 1952, it was exactly as he had left it. Among his books were the Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ and the gospel of St. John. Gandhi had often said that his aim in life was to live the Sermon on the Mount.

On the wall over Gandhi's simple bed hung a sign: "When you are in the right you can afford to keep your temper; and when you are wrong you cannot afford to lose it."

For thirty years, Gandhi, with brilliant political timing and a resolute belief in ultimate victory, applied his revolutionary new techniques of peaceful political action to the creation of a free and socially awakened India.

Independence finally came, on August 15, 1947. Throughout India wildly cheering crowds gathered for the celebration. Massed Indian and British army bands played their respective national anthems, the Union Jack came down from the flagstaffs and the new flag of the Republic of India proudly rose in its place.

What a strange and magnificent climax to an anti-colonial revolution! Four hundred million people had won their right to rule themselves. Miraculously, they had won it without bloodshed or rancour.

Because the British yielded gracefully, the basis was laid for a new relationship of equality and mutual respect within the British Commonwealth.

As in Montgomery, Alabama, nine years later, there was grudging admiration even from the die-hards: "Say what you will, you have to give these people credit."

Gandhi's chief lieutenant, Jawaharlal Nehru, went from being the king's prisoner to the king's first minister of his largest domain. And Lord Mountbatten went from being the last viceroy of the Emperor of India to the first governor-general of a free commonwealth, selected for this honour by the very people who had fought British rule most of their lives. British governors who had sent thousands of Indians to jail suddenly found themselves showered with garlands and good will.

No thoughtful person can deny the practical effectiveness of the Gandhian approach in India or even in Montgomery, Alabama. But can it work in Little Rock, Chicago, Levittown, and New Orleans? Can it free Americans - North, South, East and West - from the suffocating burden of racial prejudice and fear accumulated in 300 years of largely unconscious compromise with Christian principles?

To answer these questions we need to consider why Gandhi' political techniques set India free and paved the way for her emergence as an effective new democracy. The explanations of Gandhi's closest associates, including Nehru, agree on all the essentials.

The prime condition for the success of Gandhi's way of fighting injustice, they say, was that it took place within a legal system administered by people who professed a democratic creed and who permitted a large measure of free speech and a free press.

The British national conscience was stirred by the Gandhian struggle because the British are a deeply democratic and peaceful people. His techniques were effective because the free institutions of Britain enabled Gandhi's views and the story of his own and his followers' sacrifices to reach the people.

Dozing consciences were thus awakened, deep religious chords were struck and an atmosphere of respect and support for India's cause gradually was created.

As a trained lawyer, Gandhi never lost his respect for the majesty of law. He called for the acceptance of the state's right to make and enforce laws, while offering up his person and his freedom in protest until those laws which violated democratic principles were changed. His appeal was from man-made discriminatory laws to a higher natural law, to the moral law.

This is precisely the approach that enabled the brilliantly led, well-organised Negro citizens of Montgomery to abolish segregation on the city buses. Under the leadership and inspiration of the Reverend Martin Luther King and his associates they began their mass meetings with prayers "for those that oppose us," and they regularly pledged themselves to use "only the weapons of love and non-violence." They said they were "walking with God." They named their movement the Montgomery Improvement Association.

Doctor King laid down their objectives in eloquent Gandhian terms. "The Negro," he said, "must come to the point that he can say to his white brothers: `We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. So, in winning the victory, we will not only win freedom for ourselves but we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that you will be changed also. The victory will be a double victory: we will defeat the evil system and win the hearts and souls of the perpetrators of the evil system."

Like Gandhi, Doctor King also stressed that he and his associates were working for the advancement of the whites as well as for that of the coloured people. "We are seeking to improve not the Negro of Montgomery," he said, "but the whole of Montgomery."

His appeal to his Negro listeners to put their own house in order is reminiscent of Gandhi's appeal sixty years ago to the Indians living in the slums of Pretoria. "Let us examine the reasons given by white men for segregation," Doctor King said. "Let us see which reflect conditions we can do something about, and take action ourselves. Some say we can marry their daughters. But that is nonsense, so we don't have to pay any attention to that.

"Some say that we smell. Well, the fact is that some of us do smell. We cannot afford a plane trip to Paris to buy the world's most expensive perfumes, but no Negro in Montgomery is so poor that he cannot afford a five-cent bar of soap."

And then King goes on frankly to list the illegitimacy rate among Negroes, their crime rate, their purchase of cars beyond their means, their lower health standards. And the Montgomery Improvement Association works day and night to remove these legacies of slavery, segregation and enforced second-class citizenship.

Already Montgomery city and welfare records are beginning to reflect the change - a drop in Negro drinking, in juvenile delinquency, in divorce.

If this combination program of non-violent opposition to segregation and community service spreads beyond Montgomery, the road is likely to be a rocky one. Gandhi himself demonstrated that there is no easy, effortless path to the attainment of our Christian objective of equal dignity for all men.

Nehru noted that by turning the other cheek the Indians at first only enraged the British. Never, he says, had he seen men with more hate in their eyes than the soldiers who beat him with their long, steel-tipped rods, while he stood quietly, not lifting a finger in his own defence. No civilised human being likes to have his conscience so severely tested.

What counted, however, was the end result. As the Indians proved their capacity for peaceful resistance, they eventually won the respect of the British. Equally important, they came to respect themselves. "We cast off our fear," said Nehru, "and walked like men."

The climax of the Montgomery struggle, observers say, came when a Negro preacher, at a church celebration, read from First Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

It is difficult to judge prospects for this program on a nation-wide scale. Gandhi was not only a spiritual leader of depth, dedication and courage but also a political genius. In America much will depend on the ability of Negro leaders to develop similar conviction and skill under pressure. Even more will depend on the number, raw courage and dedication of their followers.

The two conditions which Gandhian leaders laid down for the success of their non-violent approach certainly exist here in America. Whether it be in Little Rock or in Levittown, racial discrimination sorely troubles our national conscience.

The great majority of moderate whites in Montgomery were profoundly shocked by the bombing of Negro churches, the homes of several Negro ministers and of the one white minister who supported the boycott.

The requirement of a free press is also met. The country-wide attention paid to the Montgomery bus boycott demonstrates that the means of communication are ready to carry the news. The Federal Bill of Rights insures against the kind of terror that liquidates and crushes completely.

Only one thing is certain: if we are to achieve racial harmony in America, a great moral force of some kind must be created that will awaken our national conscience.

The Supreme Court has made its decision. Most leaders in both political parties agree that the law as it has now been defined must somehow be obeyed.

But pleas for law observance, however eloquent and however firmly supported in areas of crisis by Federal troops, will never be sufficient in themselves. Laws which touch deep prejudices and emotions are not obeyed merely because they have been placed on the statute books and defined by the courts. They are obeyed only when a great majority of people come to believe they are right. Prohibition was clear evidence of this.

In a democratic community, Abraham Lincoln once said, "public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."

If we are to ease the racial conflict which so dangerously divides America in a world that is two-thirds coloured, we must come to see it as a moral issue and not simply as a legal one. It is an issue involving no more and no less than the dignity of man. It can successfully be met only as the millions of good Americans who through generations of custom and prejudice have come to believe in the dignity of some men only are persuaded of their error.

Nowhere else in America does religious conviction run so deep as in the South. It was a white Southern minister who said about the racial problem, "There is just one question to ask: what would Christ do?"

Sooner or later, the South, and also the North, East and West, will respond with the only Christian answer possible, for Christ came to show the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and He knows neither Gentile nor Jew, Greek nor barbarian, black nor white.

The Gandhian way of persuasion and change is designed to make a profound moral issue of this kind clear, to stir the conscience of the great decent majority who believe in the laws of God, and to persuade that majority to bring its actions into line with its beliefs.

"It may be through the Negroes," Gandhi once said, "that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world."

This, it may be said, will take no less than a miracle of greatness. That is true. But we Americans are living in an age of miracles and we are capable of greatness.