Martin Luther King Jnr: The Civil Rights Movement and Gandhian Philosophy – by Michael Lewin

Gandhi’s long-standing commitment to, and promotion of passive resistance eventually paved the way for full Indian independence in 1948. The long and arduous struggle that he had engaged with, for over fifty years, finally culminated in the end of British imperialistic rule that had gripped Indian life for centuries. At this historical point Gandhi’s political and spiritual standing in the international community reached an all time high; totally unprecedented in the era of modern politics. His life, his struggle, his achievements were powerfully unique – inspiring and enriching so many others, not only in his own country but throughout the wider world. His legacy – based on deeply nourishing, spiritual values – came to inspire and influence a young, black student who was studying at a theological college in America and helped to support and guide a black population in their quest for greater equality.

“His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” – Martin Luther King in his formative student years

Only a few weeks after Gandhi was assassinated at a prayer meeting in the grounds of Birla House, New Delhi, Martin Luther King Jnr was being ordained at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. King had graduated from Morehouse College the year before, and was set on furthering his studies and pursuing the life of a minister like his father and grandfather before him. Whilst at Crozer Theological Seminary, King was exposed to the teachings of Gandhi. They made an immediate and marked impact on him influencing deeply, his work in the Civil Rights Movement.

On a Montgomery bus, in 1955, a black woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The driver of the bus, which operated under segregated laws, brought the vehicle to a stop. The police were called and Rosa Parks was arrested. This one, simple act of protest, carried out by one, single woman later grew into a campaign – the Montgomery Bus Boycott which prepared the ground for Martin Luther King Jnr to become a civil rights leader. All over the southern states at this time, segregation was a way of life that effectively created social, political and economic disadvantage for black people, and although there had been an history of protests before, this was the start of something qualitatively and quantitatively different. The campaign received widespread attention and eventually the Supreme Court declared that segregation on Montgomery buses was unconstitutional and therefore had to end. A decisive victory had been secured by King and his followers but this was not just a legal victory but a moral victory as well that involved an entire black community in enforcing the boycott.

The nonviolent approach of King’s activism, which was proving to be highly successful and sincerely regarded, was directly based on his study and understanding of Gandhi’s experience in South Africa and India. King was bringing a deep awareness of Gandhi’s spiritually pragmatic doctrine to the Southern States of America and beyond. Because of King’s interest in, and promotion of Gandhian ideals he was invited by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to visit India in 1959. The trip went well, with King later stating that it made a profound and lasting effect upon him. On his return to America he recommenced his efforts in the civil rights struggle with renewed determination and vigour.

King worked tirelessly for the cause of justice over the years but increasingly became disenchanted with the criticism levelled at him, especially from predominantly white religious leaders who thought his actions were too radical and unsettling. Arrested for his participation in the Birmingham campaign (1963) King wrote his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. This was an attempt to rebuke all the conservative clergymen who criticised his stand. He wrote:

“When you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in a airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society… when you are humiliated day in day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘coloured’, when your first name becomes ‘nigger’, your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs’ . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

The campaign for civil rights, under King’s leadership, did continue, had to continue. In 1963 King led the March on Washington and delivered his rousing speech: “I have a dream . . .” A year later he visited Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize – the youngest ever recipient of the award. In the Selma Protest of 1965, along with over seven hundred other marchers, King was arrested. Being a Nobel Prize winner this news made headlines around the world and brought to the attention of a mass audience what was really happening in America. Segregation was now fully under the spotlight as never before and despite the bombing of his home, the physical attacks on his life, the jail sentences and the death threats, King, with committed persistence and tenacity, carried on his work to pursue greater equality for the black community.

In Memphis, on 3 April 1968, on the eve of a planned march, King made one of his most stirring speeches:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The very next day King was shot dead.

The Forging of the Civil Rights Movement: The Gandhian Influence

“I firmly believe that the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent resistance is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problems in the United States.” – Martin Luther King

Through his engagement with the civil rights movement King remained faithful to Gandhian ideals. He believed, from a Christian perspective, that justice would eventually prevail for the black community if people were prepared to stand up and unite in the noble cause of nonviolent resistance. His fundamental belief in this moral stance was unshakeable and informed all his work, but there were others, even among blacks, who questioned this approach.

Malcolm X, the Black Power leader, vehemently opposed King for adopting a conciliatory position with the white leadership of America. He believed that black people should stand up and fight for their rights in whatever way it was felt to be necessary – and this included meeting violence with violence. King’s spiritual values dictated the opposite – that you can only meet violence with nonviolence. King had realised, along with Gandhi, the spiritual truth expressed in many of the world’s religions that hate can only ever really be overcome and eliminated by the practice of love, and by no other means. But despite their differences, King did have a deep respect and regard for Malcolm X. He realised that the Black Power Movement, similar to the Civil Rights Movement, was only trying to challenge a system that for too long, had effectively created and recreated inequality and injustice for black people. Both Movements, at their core, wanted to advance the well being of black people and leave behind the repressive, growth denying forces of an unfair society. King clearly recognised this, his only criticism was on the methodological approach for dealing with this inequality and injustice. In his student days King thought differently:

“Prior to reading Gandhi,” he said, “I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.”

This was a decisive growth point for King, one which was to remain with him for the rest of his days. At the heart of Gandhi’s teachings, which King fully adopted, lay the sacrosanct notion that all life is sacred, a gift of God, and therefore had to be respected and protected at all costs – even that of the opposing ‘enemy’. King realised that it was only through adopting Gandhi’s policy of Satyagraha (truth force) that lasting, positive change could be implemented and so this was his journey, one of showing respect and dignity for ALL and it cost him dearly – the loss of his own life.

Conclusion

Even in today’s world there are still gross inequalities with unacceptable levels of poverty that plague our sense of decency and fair play. It’s a position that has been allowed to continue for too long. The challenge for us all, individually and collectively is to reach out and give of our best so that others may be allowed to flourish in a world that was created for all – every last one of us. This invitation to bring out the very best in others, and ourselves – to grow beyond the restrictive and limiting mindset that perpetuates a ‘them and us’ mentality – is an invitation to participate fully in the spiritual gift of life and who amongst us wants to withdraw from that gift, wants to ignore the sacrifice of lives given for others?

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