The year of 2019 marks the 150th birth anniversary of world renowned political and spiritual mass leader, Mahatma Gandhi. This year, the city of Philadelphia celebrated his life and ideas with a city council resolution that recognizes ‘October 2, 2019 as the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi,’ and calls upon “all Philadelphians to honor the legacy of Gandhi in the month of October and unite in mutual love to achieve peace and justice.”
It may come as a surprise to many that an American city is celebrating the legacy of a leader of the Indian anti-colonial struggle. However, the celebration follows the example of the United States Gandhi Centennial Committee, which organised a commemoration of Gandhi’s life in 1969 and had as its members Coretta Scott King, Marian Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, among others.
Philadelphia is a city defined by the struggles and aspirations of its African American community, and a deeper look into the historic relationship between Indians and Afro-Americans shows that this celebration is a continuation of a rich legacy of exchange and brotherhood.
One figure who exemplifies this legacy is Howard Thurman, who visited India in 1936 and met Gandhi. Gandhi is said to have told him that, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Thurman would later mentor a young King. Further, it was in Philadelphia that King first heard a lecture by the then president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, on Gandhian thought.
King was so moved by this lecture, that he then bought many books on Gandhian philosophy. Many other leaders in the black community, including William Stuart Nelson, Benjamin E Mays and Bayard Rustin would also visit India to study the anti-colonial movement, and look for answers to the problems their people faced in the United States. Dr. King himself visited India in 1959, and meet with Jawaharlal Nehru and many others, stating that, “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”
An event at City Hall on October 3, 2019 , titled ‘Mahatma Gandhi and Our Single Garment of Destiny, Our Inescapable Struggle for Peace and Freedom’ commemorated this shared history of fighting for peace and justice. Speaking at the event was lifelong freedom fighter Reverend James Lawson. Reverend Lawson lived in India for three years studying non-violent resistance.
He met with Martin Luther King Jr. upon returning to the US, who urged him to move south and work in building the emerging black freedom movement. Making Nashville, Tennessee his new home, he started to organise free and open workshops on non-violent resistance with a group of members of the newly founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They went on to desegregate downtown Nashville. Reverend Lawson also played a crucial role in planning and executing the freedom rides.
In Philadelphia, Reverend Lawson was honored by the city with a citation, along with civil rights leaders Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette, anti-apartheid activist ES Reddy, peace activist Romesh Chandra, people’s politician Lucien Blackwell and labour leader Henry Nicholas as exemplary practitioners of non-violent resistance. The event ended with a cultural celebration featuring dance and music from India and Afro-America.
Figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. belong not just to Indians or African Americans, but to the world. Indeed, in this time of pessimism and perpetual war, their ideas serve to show humanity a way forward. In a time when the threat of nuclear war always looms over the world, Dr. King’s words ring true, “If we fail, on an international scale, to follow the Gandhian principle of non-violence, we may end up by destroying ourselves through the misuse of our own instruments. The choice is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is now either non-violence or non-existence.”
The past few years show us that a new era is being born as Asia rises, and the West faces a collapse of its society. The hegemon of the world, the US is going through an unprecedented political crisis. This time of transition and change has opened up for humanity an opportunity to remake the world, and redefine international relationships based on a new morality and principles.
These principles will have to be different from what Martin Luther King Jr. called the three evils of society that define the West, militarism, materialism and racism. It is imperative that we commemorate the ideas of Gandhi and King in this time, and recommit ourselves to the search for the truth that they spent their lives in dedication to.