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Gandhi's Influence on the Modern African American Freedom Struggle

For a timeline of the Modern African American Freedom Struggle, see this note.

Gandhi's Influence on the Modern African American Freedom Struggle

"It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world."

-Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.[1]

"The Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom... Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method."

-Martin Luther King, Jr.[2]

As early as the 1920's, "an undeniable association had been established in the collective African-American mind between Gandhi's freedom struggle and the aspirations of black citizens for equality." [3] Black Americans largely already knew about, admired, and felt solidarity with the Indian freedom struggle led by Gandhi. Newspapers were regularly reporting on the Indian independence movement and many black leaders were traveling to India to see Gandhian nonviolence in practice on the ground. For the most part, trips like these were long journeys by steamship. They would meet with leaders of the independence movement in India and educate their followers about it upon their return to the United States.

Among those influential black Americans who formed relationships with Gandhi were:

Most of those black Americans who voyaged to India to meet with Gandhi were prominent in academia, the church, and social service organizations. Thus these visits had a great influence on the direction of the African American freedom struggle.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (pictured left), Benjamin Mays (pictured right), and James Lawson (pictured below with Martin Luther King, Jr.) were particularly important as bridges between Gandhi and the movement in the United States. Benjamin Mays had met with Gandhi in India in the 1920's. Mays wrote in an essay about his meeting with Gandhi,

"The fact that Gandhi and his nonviolent campaign have given the Indian masses a new conception of courage, no man can deny. To discipline people to face death, to die, to go to jail for the cause without fear and without resorting to violence is an achievement of the first magnitude. And when an oppressed race ceases to be afraid, it is free." [4]

A decade later in 1936, as president of Morehouse College, Mays introduced the young Martin Luther King, Jr. along with his many students, to Gandhi through his lectures.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, president of Howard University and a respected orator, met with Gandhian leaders in 1949 in India. Johnson's subsequent sermon on Gandhism in 1950 at Fellowship House, Philadelphia, was so inspirational to King that he immediately bought several books on Gandhi and began his own in-depth study of the man and his vision.[5] In the video above, Martin Luther King discusses the impact Johnson's speech had on him.

In Their Own Words

King wrote of the impact Gandhi had on him at this time:

"When I was in the theological school, I thought the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt. I felt that the Christian ethics of love were confined to individual relationships, I could not see how it could work in social conflicts. Then I read Gandhi's ethics of love as revealed in Jesus but raised to a social strategy for social transformation. This Gandhi helped us to understand and for this we are grateful a decade after his death."[6]

In Their Own Words

King on the influence of Gandhi and the differences between the Indian and American contexts:

"Well, I would say that I owe a great deal to Mahatma Gandhi for my own commitment to nonviolence. I would say that we gained the operative technique for this movement from the great movement that took place in India. Now, of course, there are differences and we recognize these differences. We are in a different cultural situation. The Indian people constituted a numerical majority seeking to gain freedom in a situation where a numerical minority ruled, where in the United States we are a numerical minority. Also there is a distinction between integration and independence. On the one hand a foreign invader is being driven out, in America we are seeking to gain freedom within a situation where we will have to live with the same people the minute we get that freedom, and so there are differences, but I think that the basic philosophy itself, the basic method, is the same and that is that it is possible to stand up against an unjust system resistive with determination and yet not stoop to violence and hatred in the process."[9]

James Lawson was another central figure in bringing nonviolence to the American movement. He had traveled to India in 1952, already with a strong understanding, intellectual grounding, and practical experience in nonviolence and civil disobedience through his involvement with protest against segregation and through his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Korean War.[7] In India, he spent time with satyagrahis and people who had worked directly with Gandhi. He met King five years later in 1957 and King pushed him to get involved in the movement against segregation in the south. Lawson accepted King's invitation immediately, becoming southern field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). He held workshops and group studies of nonviolence, using Gandhi's writings, the bible, and writings by others such as Thoreau. Lawson was based in Nashville and had a huge influence on the character of the movements there."Nashville remained staunchly committed to disciplined nonviolent struggle and demonstrated remarkable cohesion and strategic genius" throughout the decade of the civil rights movement, according to Mary King.[8] Lawson was indispensable in his translation of Gandhian nonviolence to on-the-ground organizing in the American freedom struggle.

Through its influence upon King and many other leaders of the African American freedom struggle from Bayard Rustin to James Lawson, Gandhi's philosophy was a formative aspect of the movement for racial equality in the United States.


A Thank You: The information in this note is drawn from Mary King's thorough examination of Gandhi, King, and the connections between the two men and the movements they represented in her 1999 book Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action. Thank you to Mary King for this valuable work.


[1] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Interview with Howard Thurman. Published in Harijan March 14, 1936. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: the Power of Nonviolent Action. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1999.

[2] King, Martin Luther Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. 84-5. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 211.

[3] King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 176.

[4] King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 226.

[5] King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 183.

[6] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "His Influence Speaks to World Conscience." Hindustan Times. 30 January, 1958. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 211.

[7] King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 187-193.

[8] King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 191.

[9] King, Martin Luther Jr., National Press Club Luncheon in Washington, D.C. on August 22, 1962. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 210.

Images (in order)

1. African American Freedom Struggle. From the National Archives. Click here for the archival description.

2. Portrait of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. From Life Magazine.

3. Portrait of Benjamin Mays. From The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

4. James Lawson with Martin Luther King, Jr. From The Santa Barbara Independent.

Last updated by Shara Lili Esbenshade May 4, 2011.


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