Gandhi and the African American Interpreters of Non-violence

- Meghna Chandra*

MAHATMA GANDHI FAMOUSLY said: “ may be through the negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world”, Gandhi's words proved prophetic for the 20th century, as African Americans used Gandhian philosophy and methods in the American Civil Rights struggles of 1950s and 60s.

The foundation for the connection between India and Afro America was laid through the life and works African American visionaries W.E.B. Du Bois, Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King Jr. These three men were drawn to Mahatma Gandhi because he challenged the West and showed how the moral force of the oppressed could be a driving force of history. Interpreted by black America, these ideas changed the course of American history.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Perhaps one of the first prominent African American admirer of Mahatma Gandhi was WEB. Du Bois, the great American intellectual, civil rights crusader, and peace activist. Born just a year before Gandhi in 1868, Du Bois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), the Pan Africanist Movement, and the discipline of Sociology. Du Bois studied at Fisk and Harvard University, as well as Humboldt University in Berlin. He was the first black man to graduate with a PhD from Harvard in defiance of racial discrimination from the student and faculty there.

In his work Philadephia Negro, he used social science to disprove the myth that black people were an inferior people, showing meticulously through sociological methods that blacks are an oppressed people who faced problems, not because they were an inferior race as the whites believed, but because of the cruelty of white society. Throughout his career, in works like The Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction, The World and Africa, and The Dark Princess, Du Bois worked towards an understanding of the world that reflected the realities of the colonized peoples of the darker nations, as against white social science that was built on assumptions of the superiority of white people. Du Bois famously said that “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea”.

In 1929, Du Bois asked for a letter from Gandhi to the American Negroes, acknowledging that while Gandhi was busy struggling for the freedom of his people, “the race and color problems are worldwide, and we need your help here.” In reply Gandhi wrote: “Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave-owners”.

Du Bois saw in Gandhi a force that challenged the colour line by challenging the civilization that created it as a force of disruption, oppression and violence, rather than a force of civilization as it claimed to be. In his 1948 essay “Gandhi”, Du Bois writes that Gandhi was the “greatest man in the world” and the “Prince of Peace” among living leaders:

It is singular that a man who was not a follower of the Christian religion should be in his day the best exemplification of the principles which that religion was supposed to lay down. While the Christian Church during its two thousand years of existence has been foremost in war and organized murder, Mohandas Gandhi has been foremost in exemplifying peace as a method of political progress.

Du Bois admired Gandhi because he exposed the hypocrisy of Western Civilization which spoke of Christian and humanist values while lynching black people and perpetrating wars all over the world. He saw in Gandhi an example of how human beings should fight for Peace to save the human civilization from the existential threat of nuclear war.

Du Bois, like Gandhi, would suffer greatly for his pro-peace positions. He was arrested in 1951 by the United States government for his opposition to the War in Korea and activism with the Peace Information Center. His works were censored in American Universities as a part of the McCarthyist Purges of the 1950s. He went to Ghana in 1961 at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah. He died while he was writing the Encyclopedia of Africa to shed light on the erased history of how Africa shaped the modern world.

Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 as the grandson of freedmen. Thurman went through poverty and Jim Crow in his childhood in Daytona, Florida, to valedictorian of Moorehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary. He would become one of the greatest theologians of his times, laying the foundation for Martin Luther King’s (Jr.) theology of liberation.

His first exposure to religion was through his grandmother who rejected the teachings of Paul in the Bible, because she remembered how white slave ministers read her texts from the book of Paul to justify slavery. Like Du Bois, Howard Thurman looked to understand the moral values of Christianity, the religion of the masses of black Americans, through the lens of the darker nations.

In 1935, Howard Thurman went as head of a four member delegation to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Burma on the invitation of Reverend Augustine Ralla Ram. Thurman and the delegation met Gandhi in the last days of the delegation. Mahadev Desai records how Gandhi met the delegation with unprecedented warmth. They had a deep three hour conversation that spanned theology, philosophy, history, and sociology, as the group discussed the negro question in the United States and the relevance of ahimsa to their struggle. It was in this meeting that Gandhi said it was blacks who may be the greatest messengers of non-violence.

During the conversation, Gandhi questioned Thurman as to why blacks in America stayed Christian, as their oppressors were Christian and used Christianity to justify the oppression of black people. He asked why they did not become Muslim, because Islam was the most egalitarian religion in the world that guaranteed equality between slaves and masters.

In response to this line of questioning, Thurman wrote his magnum opus Jesus and the Disinherited in 1949 that delineated “the religion of the Church” from “the religion of Jesus”. In the book, he describes the hounds of hell for the oppressed: fear, deception, and hate, and how each feeling is ultimately suicidal for them. He ends with a treatise on love as an eternal and universal force in human existence that has the power to transform the oppressor and oppressed by raising their spiritual consciousness and creating a new kind of human being.

In his book, Thurman quotes Gandhi's letter to Muriel Lester in his chapter on deception: “Speak the truth, without fear and without exception, and see everyone whose work is related to your purpose. You are in God’s work, so you need not fear man’s scorn. If they listen to your requests and grant them, you will be satisfied. If they reject them, then you must make their rejection your strength.”

Thurman saw in Gandhi's philosophy an interpretation of the religion of Jesus. Jesus and the Disinherited was a book that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kept at his side as he assumed leadership of the Civil Rights movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the best known interpreter of Gandhi, as well as the most famous leader of the African American freedom struggle. Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, headed the Southern Christian Leadership, organized the March on Washington, opposed the Vietnam War, and pushed for a Poor People’s Campaign for peace and justice. In his speech “My Pilgrimage to Non-violence”, Dr. King explains how he came to a Gandhian practice of non-violence after engaging with Western philosophers from Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, and Rauschenbausch. As he says:

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and non-violence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social-contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.

King found in Gandhi a method of understanding the world and living for change directly relevant to the realities of the oppressed in America. He engaged with the philosophy of Reinold Niebuhr that criticized Gandhi's philosophy as passively accepting evil, and made the distinction between “non-resistance to evil” that submitted injustice and “non-violent resistance to evil” that opposed evil courageously with the creative force of love.

In 1959, he made his celebrated trip to India, his trip to “the land of Gandhi”. In a piece for Ebony Magazine, he was a keen observer of Indian society, noting both the great problems challenges post-independence India, as well as its enormous achievements and its civilizational heritage that upheld peace as a principle of life.

These three great interpreters of non-violence continue to inspire people in the United States to celebrate and study the works of Gandhi. In Philadelphia in 2019, a group of African Americans, white Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, and others are organizing a Year of Gandhi to uplift these connections and understand how they can be the basis for a new movement for peace, freedom, and justice. A Resolution will be passed by Philadelphia City Council to honour the life of Gandhi, as well as Indian and African American interpreters of Gandhi.

Courtesy: Gandhi Marg, Volume 41, Number 1, April-June 2019

* MEGHNA CHANDRA is PhD Candidate in Social Welfare, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Email: