Civil Rights Movement

Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman travelled to India in 1936 on a 'Pilgrimage of Friendship' to meet with Gandhi. Howard Thurman described his conversation with Gandhi as "the most intense examination" of the history of the Black struggle. Thurman's interpretation of Jesus Christ's teachings as nonviolent resistance to oppression ('Jesus and the Disinherited') would serve as inspiration of MLK for actuating the political method in Montgomery.

Picture courtesy: Gandhi Memorial Center

William Stuart Nelson was closely involved in the Civil Rights movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and would deeply influence King through his 1958 article on Satyagraha. He spent a considerable time in Calcutta while on a mission with the American Friends Service Committee, worked closely with Gandhi and marched with him in 1946 through riot-ravaged Bengal. He would insist that "Nonviolence is not an expedient to be used when no other instrument is available and one is otherwise power­less. It is not a tactic, a strategy. It is a way of life, a religion." Nelson also noted the different political context in the two lands, one with a majority oppressed by a foreign minority and the other with a minority oppressed by a majority within the same nation, and the need for a political method to be rightly contextualized before it can be applied.

James Lawson at the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia during the Year of Gandhi, 2019

James Lawson lived in India as a Methodist Minister during 1953-56 and studied the Gandhian method and met with Nehru. He became involved in the Civil rights movement after meeting King in 1957 and moved to Nashville. He played a key role in holding workshops to train people in the methods of nonviolent direct action when faced with violent segregation laws.

Mordecai Johnson was the president of Howard University when he visited India in 1949. On his return he delivered a sermon in Philadelphia on Gandhi and the nonviolent method ('Soul force or nonviolent coercion' ) that would greatly influence King, who would describe it as 'so profound and electrifying' that he began a serious study of the method and to seek to transform the consciousness of the American people through it.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was the embodiment of the fruition of all the political and spiritual connections between India and Black America, in the sense that it was through him that the nonviolent method found use and transformed the Civil Rights movement. In his Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, shortly after his trip to India, he wrote that the principle of nonviolent resistance "became the guiding light in our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method...the nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality."

Matthew Walker, Peggy Alexander, Diane Nash and Stanley Hemphill at just desegregated lunch counter in Nashville. P.C. :

Diane Nash would famously describe nonviolent direct action as "the greatest invention of the 20th century." She “got a really good, excellent education in nonviolence and how to practice it” at Rev. Lawson's workshops in Nashville. Nash was to become one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee which was crucial in fighting segregation in the South .

The Year is organized by members of the Saturday Free School for Philosophy & Black Liberation, based in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, and the Gandhi Global Family.