Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 midnightmoments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of de spair 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."
"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
"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
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.
"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 that discrimination 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 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.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.