"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 re-crossed the ocean to strengthen
hearts and to influence minds in South Asia, South Africa and in
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 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 unjust laws. Peacefully, cheerfully
and massively, he and his followers accepted jail as the penalty for
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
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
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
To answer these questions we need to consider why
Gandhi's 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
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 was gradually 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 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
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
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 millions of good
Americans, who through generations of custom and prejudice, have come
to believe in the dignity of some men only and are persuaded of their
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 non-violence will be delivered to
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.