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Asking Gandhi tough questions

Why did Gandhi exclude black South Africans from his movement? Could Gandhi reconcile his service in the Boer War with his later anti-imperialism? Why did Gandhi oppose untouchability, but not caste?

These are questions contemporary historians are asking as they rethink Gandhi’s legacy. In 1936, Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays asked Gandhi himself. Thurman and Mays were good friends and colleagues at Howard University’s School of Religion, and they were part of a network of black American Christian intellectuals and activists who looked abroad, even in other religious traditions, for resources to spark a racial justice movement in the United States. Their international travels—including asking Gandhi tough questions—became vital to the later civil rights movement.

Thurman met Gandhi in March 1936. Thurman’s first question was whether black South Africans took part in Gandhi’s movement. Thurman was referring to the first phase of Gandhi’s career, when he organized against excessive taxing and British restrictions on free movement of Indians between South African states. The simple answer to Thurman’s question was no; Gandhi clarified, “I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause. They would not have understood the technique of our struggle nor could they have seen the purpose or utility of nonviolence.”

Gandhi did not explain why he thought black South Africans would not have understood nonviolence, but Howard Thurman wanted to learn more. “How are we to train individuals or communities in this difficult art?” Thurman asked. It requires “living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon,” Gandhi replied. There is no easy path; ahimsa requires persistence and perseverance. Gandhi went on to explain the moral logic of noncooperation as it might apply in the context of Jim Crow.

Photo courtesy of Howard Thurman Estate. Do not re-use without permission.

In December 1936, Mays met the Mahatma. He pressed Gandhi to reconcile nonviolence with what he did in the Boer War, when Gandhi organized and participated in an ambulance corps in support of British forces. Mays wondered why Gandhi had declared war on untouchability but not on caste. “For the most part it is a good thing for sons to follow in the footsteps of their parents,” Gandhi replied; it was the idea that castes are hierarchical that must be abolished. Mays was not persuaded. Born to poor tenant farmers in South Carolina, Mays had not wanted to follow his parents into the equivalent of a racialized American peasantry.

Mays also asked Gandhi about nonviolence. He reported on his discussions with Gandhi in his weekly column in the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a regional black paper with a wide readership. Therein Mays specified cultural and religious roots of Gandhi’s approach. The doctrine of ahimsa, Mays explained, is in Hinduism but Gandhi seemed to draw direct lessons about it from Jainism, an ancient non-theistic South Asian religious tradition about which Mays’s readers were likely unaware.

Thurman and Mays saw significant shortcomings in Gandhi’s work and in his moral vision; nevertheless they believed that Gandhi’s program held promise for black American activism. Asking Gandhi tough questions was critical if they were to take ideas and practices from one context to apply in their own. After extensive travels in India, Thurman and Mays returned to the U.S. where they lectured widely about Gandhi’s activism, Indian religions, and transformative possibilities of black Christian nonviolence. In the 1940s, their students and protégés James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and Pauli Murray experimented with nonviolent direct action by integrating buses, organizing sit-ins, and theorizing noncooperation—all of which became mainstays of the later movement.

Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays became mentors to the person who would become known as the “American Gandhi,” and Martin Luther King, Jr. cherished their lessons. He famously carried with him everywhere Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, the book Thurman wrote in the wake of his travels through South Asia. And King would later remember Mays’s experience of visiting a Dalit school as King’s own experience, thus underscoring Mays was indeed what King called “one of the great influences in my life.”

This network of black Christian intellectuals and activists brought lessons from independence movements in Asia and in Africa that stoked an American freedom movement. Indeed, In 1959 King affirmed that Americans had much to learn from activists around the world: “what we are trying to do in the South and in the United States is part of this worldwide struggle for freedom and human dignity.”

Featured image credit: “Howard University chapel – detail of stained glass window” by Fourandsixty. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Gauthier

    Fascinating. Orwell and Hitchens had been saying similar things for decades, but were dismissed as biased cranks. Now, it seems to have become more fashionable to rethink these old heroes. One wonders why.

  2. Jad Adams

    Gandhi was a Hindu reformer who supported all the divisiveness of the caste structure but wanted people to be benevolent towards each other. He felt people could only realise their spiritual best by accepting their lot on earth but striving to be more holy within their caste. His respect for other religions such as Christianity and Islam came from a belief that they could fit into the Hindu pantheon which alone could tell absolute spiritual truth. See my ‘Gandhi – Naked Ambition’ (Quercus 2010)

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