Gandhi and American Civil Rights

Howard Thurman travelled to India and returned to the U.S. intent on bringing nonviolence to the struggles of African Americans, writes Walter E. Fluker.

File 20190130 103164 pswg2g.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Howard Thurman’s image on Howard University chapel’s stained glass window. (Fourandsixty from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

By Walter E. Fluker, Boston University
The Conversation 

Director Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary, “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story,” is scheduled for release on public television in February. Thurman played an important role in the civil rights struggle as a key mentor to many leaders of the movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., among others.

I have been a scholar of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. for over 30 years and I serve as the editor of Thurman’s papers. Thurman’s influence on King Jr. was critical in shaping the civil rights struggle as a nonviolent movement. Thurman was deeply influenced by how Gandhi used nonviolence in India’s struggle for independence from British rule.

Visit to India

Born in 1899, Howard Washington Thurman was raised by his formerly enslaved grandmother. He grew up to be an ordained Baptist minister and a leading religious figure of 20th-century America.

                                                   Journey of the delegation in South Asia. (Marc Korpus, CC BY)

In 1936 Thurman led a four-member delegation to India, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), known as the “pilgrimage of friendship.” It was during this visit that he would meet Mahatma Gandhi, who at the time was leading a nonviolent struggle of independence from British rule.

The delegation had been sponsored by the Student Christian Movement in India who wanted to explore the political connections between the oppression of blacks in the United States and the freedom struggles of the people of India.

The general secretary of the Indian Student Christian Movement, A. Ralla Ram, had argued for inviting a “Negro” delegation. He said that “since Christianity in India is the ‘oppressor’s’ religion, there would be a unique value in having representatives of another oppressed group speak on the validity and contribution of Christianity.”

Between October 1935 and April 1936, Thurman gave at least 135 lectures in over 50 cities, to a variety of audiences and important Indian leaders, including the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, who also played a key role in India’s independence movement.

Throughout the journey, the issue of segregation within the Christian church and its inability to address color consciousness, a social and political system based upon discrimination against blacks and other nonwhite people, was raised by many of the people he met.

Thurman and Gandhi

The delegation met with Gandhi towards the end of their tour in Bardoli, a small town in India’s western state of Gujarat.

Gandhi, an admirer of Booker T. Washington, the prominent African-American educator, was no stranger to the struggles of African-Americans. He had been in correspondence with prominent black leaders before the meeting with the delegation.

As early as May 1, 1929, Gandhi had written a “Message to the American Negro” addressed to W.E.B. DuBois to be published in “The Crisis.” Founded in 1910 by DuBois, “The Crisis” was the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Gandhi’s message stated,

“Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slave-owners. But let us not think of honour or dishonour in connection with the past. Let us realise that the future is with those who would be truthful, pure and loving.”

Understanding Nonviolence

In a conversation lasting about three hours, published in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, Gandhi engaged his guests with questions about racial segregation, lynching, African-American history, and religion. Gandhi was puzzled as to why African-Americans adopted the religion of their masters, Christianity.

                                                       Gandhi, spinning cotton, in a photo from 1931. (AP Photo)

He reasoned that at least in religions like Islam, all were considered equal. Gandhi declared, “For the moment a slave accepts Islam he obtains equality with his master, and there are several instances of this in history.” But he did not think that was true for Christianity. Thurman asked what was the greatest obstacle to Christianity in India. Gandhi replied that Christianity as practiced and identified with Western culture and colonialism was the greatest enemy to Jesus Christ in India.

The delegation used the limited time that was left to interrogate Gandhi on matters of “ahimsa,” or nonviolence, and his perspective on the struggle of African-Americans in the United States.

According to Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s personal secretary, Thurman was fascinated with the discussion on the redemptive power of ahimsa in a life committed to the practice of nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi explained that though ahimsa is technically defined as “non-injury” or “nonviolence,” it is not a negative force, rather it is a force “more positive than electricity and more powerful than even ether.”

In its most practical terms, it is love that is “self-acting,” but even more – and when embodied by a single individual, it bears a force more powerful than hate and violence and can transform the world.

Towards the end of the meeting, Gandhi proclaimed, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Search for an American Gandhi

Indeed, Gandhi’s views would leave a deep impression on Thurman’s own interpretation of nonviolence. They would later be influential in developing Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. It would go on to shape the thinking of a generation of civil rights activists.

In his book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” Thurman addresses the negative forces of fear, deception and hatred as forms of violence that ensnare and entrap the oppressed. But he also counsels that through love and the willingness to nonviolently engage the adversary, the committed individual creates the possibility of community.

As he explains, the act of love as redemptive suffering is not contingent on the other’s response. Love, rather, is unsolicited and self-giving. It transcends merit and demerit. It simply loves.

A growing number of African-American leaders closely followed Gandhi’s campaigns of “satyagraha,” or what he termed as nonresistance to evil against British colonialism. Black newspapers and magazines announced the need for an “American Gandhi.”

Upon his return, some African-American leaders thought that Howard Thurman would fulfill that role. In 1942, for example, Peter Dana of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote that Thurman “was one of the few black men in the country around whom a great, conscious movement of Negroes could be built, not unlike the great Indian independence movement.”

King, Love and Nonviolence

Thurman, however, chose a less direct path as an interpreter of nonviolence and a resource for activists who were on the front lines of the struggle. As he wrote,

“It was my conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists – a mission fundamentally perceived. To me it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church. There must be provided a place, a moment, when a person could declare, I choose.”

                     Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.
(AP Photo)

Indeed, leaders like Martin Luther King did choose to live out the gospel of peace, justice and love that Thurman so eloquently proclaimed in writing and the spoken word, even though it came with an exacting price.

In his last letter to Martin Luther King, dated May 13, 1966, Thurman expressed his regret for the time that had elapsed since he and King last spoke. He ended the short note with a rather foreboding quote from the American naturalist and essayist Loren Eiseley,

“Those as hunts treasure must go alone, at night, and when they find it they have to leave a little of their blood behind them.”

King, like Gandhi 70 years ago, fell to an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.The Conversation

Walter E. Fluker, is a professor of Ethical Leadership at Boston University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

15 comments for “Gandhi and American Civil Rights

  1. Brian James
    February 3, 2019 at 13:10

    “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi

  2. mike k
    February 2, 2019 at 07:58

    That there is no visible peace movement today in America says much about the moral decay that has set in among us. The despised and ridiculed “hippies” had after all something true and beautiful about them that is forgotten now by our stupefied and brainwashed populace, most of whom have no idea who Gandhi was, or the relevance of his ideas and practice to our desperate situation today.

    • zendeviant
      February 4, 2019 at 04:50

      There is you and me, Mike. I bet there are others who lie dormant, like a seed in frozen ground. When the sun is free to shine again, we’ll spring forth from the muck and ash and decay. Life is eternal, empire temporary.

      The subtitle from Ghandi’s autobiography: “My experiments with Truth.”

      And my favorite quote from same: “If one would be a friend to God, one must be alone or, befriend the whole world.” I am still pursuing option B.

      Proud to be despised and ridiculed, by the despicable and ridiculous.


      • luke
        February 4, 2019 at 15:34

        To befriend the whole world, you’ll first have to stop thinking of those that despise what you stand for as ‘despicable and ridiculous’. Bit of cognitive dissonance?…

        The fatal flaw of non-violence, the fact that all popular proponents of non-violence are assasinated.
        This is usually followed by their sanctification, while every other aspect of their message apart from their commitment to non-violence is expunged from public conciousness.

        To illustrate my point, last weeks insightful article on Malcom X recieved this comment:
        “Its easy to talk about what others has done or not done….Dr. King, Malculm X and other black leaders gave their lives for what they believe…will you do the same?”
        I was under the impression that these guy’s words were far more intrinsic to their legacies than the fact that they were murdered, but apparently this commentor will respect you only after you are assasinated, and even then your message is just ‘talk’.Judging by the commentors vernacular, I’d extrapolate that this is a fairly average view.

        And for anyone who thinks that pointing out that X advocated violence is contrary to what I’m saying, please tell me the date of Malcom X Day as its not on my calendar.

        If you were a ruthless dictator wouldn’t it be logical to compell any resistance to your rule to act non-violently, so they pose zero risk and can simply be murdered with no backlash from their non-violent followers?

        I think anyone who quotes King quoting Parker, should do so like this:

        ‘“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Said King just before they shot him in the face’.

        Dormant seeds waiting for figurative suns to come and tell them when to spring are not the bearers of a universal justice.
        There is no universal justice. We are God, we create the morals and we choose whether we enforce justice or make flowery metaphors to justify our passivity.

        • Skip Scott
          February 5, 2019 at 13:07

          The fatal flaw with violence is that you become that which you despise. It is a poison pill. “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Buddha.

          I believe there are fates worse than death.

        • zendeviant
          February 7, 2019 at 05:28

          Well, howdy do and touche, Mr Luke!

          I set a distinction between accepting the paradoxical and full on “cognitive dissonance.” I am not afraid to throw out the occasional oxymoron just for the fun of it.

          So, violence. I grew up a full white, empowered, educated, asshole. I have engaged in violence and seen it’s result in myself. All internal, all me, all personal. I started fighting in sixth grade. I served on a fast attack boat in the Pacific fleet. Fill in bad-ass CV here.

          But by grace (that is quasi-religious code for I have no f**king idea how), I was faced with my own “forty days in the desert.” When I finally found the time to take stock, it was the anger and the violence that had scarred me, driven by ideology and righteous anger. So I chose the road less traveled.

          So, non-violence isn’t a campaign, it’s my freewill choice. Having made it, I found myriad unforseen benefits. That’s why I dug on Gandhi’s subtitle. It was his personal choice, he had opportunity and language to explain it. Experiments with truth, HIS, personal.

          Be it crucifixion, burning at the stake, or good ole ‘merican “shoot em in the face,” the leaders of non-violence DO find similar ends. But gee wiz, Luke, how do you imagine your end? With a bang or with a whimper? True ahimsa is a warrior stance, Vallhalla baby.

          I think it’s a sort of limited thinking, to equate non-violence with passivity. It’s to me the same as those who see “turning the other cheek” as weak. I see the Bush doctrine (“hit them before they hit us”) as the worst of childish insecurity, a fearful choice of the helpless. Fear drives a lot of people’s choices. How can little ole me help to fix that?

          I guess first would be, live fearlessly. I am working on that. I am older and maybe wiser (certainly weaker) than I was, but since I’ve departed the world I am confirmed by the spirit. But lord knows I wouldn’t try to convince you to lay down your arms–just don’t point ’em at me. And confrontation needn’t always produce a victor, truth is the victor. All parties can be enlightened.

          Okeydoke. Remember, a mind is like a bed, when made up, it’s not being used.

          “We are God, we create the morals and we choose whether we enforce justice or make flowery metaphors to justify our passivity.” IF that is the case, I am a loving, merciful, ineffable and timeless one. I am not the smiting kind anymore.

          And thanks for the scolding!

  3. dbw
    February 2, 2019 at 01:21

    The man had quite a few ‘issues’ ( ), but next to the quasi-Fascist swamp creatures running the country that’s about to overtake China as the most populous, he still comes across as Orwell noted in his obituary: “regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”

  4. Bob Van Noy
    February 1, 2019 at 15:48

    May thanks Walter E. Fluker. I have a personal story that readers may appreciate. Several years ago, I was invited to look at a local History Professor’s library before it was dismantled. He had died, and several people were able to look and to appreciate its organization. Upon entering, there were two tiny portraits displayed side by side, they were of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and I nstantly I thought, “Ha, I know what the connection is.” I’ll share a link below because those letters are very inspirational.

    In the mid to late 60’s, in reaction to the ongoing Vietnam War, there was a viable anti-war activity going on in this country that many people are now unaware of. It was the Peace effort, not just race issues that got the leaders of that movement Assassinated.

    • Skip Scott
      February 2, 2019 at 08:30

      Wow. Thanks for the link Bob. I finally got around to reading “Anna Karenina” last winter, maybe it’s time for “War & Peace”.

      • Bob Van Noy
        February 2, 2019 at 10:41

        War and Peace changed my life Skip. It took me two weeks of fairly constant reading but it’s an amazing book.
        The couple who owned the home and library I mentioned above read it back and forth to each other through their marriage… Love that.

    • February 4, 2019 at 22:34

      Bob Van Noy,

      Thank you for bringing this highly positive and beneficial information to the attention of Consortium News’ many readers around the world. The giant historical Gandhi-Tolstoy letters, with the great and high wisdom they contain, should become required reading in high schools. The world would rapidly become a better place if such an easy-decision, mandatory high school reading prerequisite were instituted.

      Gandhi shared the following passage with Tolstoy:

      “The aim of the sinless One consists in acting without causing sorrow to others, although he could attain to great power by ignoring their feelings. The aim of the sinless One lies in not doing evil to those who have done evil unto him. If a man causes suffering even to those who hate him without any reason, he will ultimately have grief that will not be overcome. The punishment of evil-doers consists in making them feel ashamed of themselves by doing them a great kindness. Of what use is superior knowledge in the one, if he does not endeavor to relieve his neighbor’s want as much as his own? If, in the morning, a man wishes to do evil to another, in the evening the evil will return to him.” (The Hindu Kural)

      Gandhi wrote the following upon the passing of his friend Tolstoy:


      The great Tolstoy has quit this corporeal frame at the ripe old age of 82. It is truer to say that “he has quit this corporeal frame” than that “he has died”. There can be no death for Tolstoy’s soul. His name will ever remain immortal. Only his body, which was of dust, has returned to dust.

      Tolstoy is known to the entire world, but not as a soldier, though once he was reputed to be an expert soldier; not as a great writer, though indeed he enjoys a great reputation as a writer; nor as a nobleman, though he owned immense wealth. It was as a good man that the world knew him. In India, we would have described him as a maharishi or fakir. He renounced his wealth and gave up a life of comfort to embrace that of a simple peasant.

      It was Tolstoy’s great virtue that he himself put into practice what he preached. Hence thousands of men clung loyally to his words and his teaching.

      We believe Tolstoy’s teaching will win increasing appreciation with the passage of time. Its foundation was religion. Being a Christian, he believed that Christianity was the best religion. He did not, however, denounce any other religion. He said, on the contrary, that truth was undoubtedly present in all the religions. At the same time, he also pointed out that selfish priests, Brahmins, and Mullahs had distorted the teaching of Christianity and other religions and misled the people.

      What Tolstoy believed with special conviction was that, in essence, all religions held soul force to be superior to brute force and taught that evil should be requited with good, not evil. Evil is the negation of religion. Irreligion cannot be cured by irreligion, but only by religion. There is no room in religion for anything other than compassion. A man of religion will not wish ill even to his enemy. Therefore, if people always want to follow the path of religion, they must do nothing but good.

      In his last days, this great man wrote a letter to me to acknowledge copies of Indian Opinion in which I expressed these same ideas. The letter is in Russian. We give in this issue a Gujarati translation of it, based on an English translation. The translation is worth reading. What he has … [Satyagraha: “Insistent truth”, soul force, or truth force – generally known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance.] … said there about satyagraha deserves to be pondered over by all. According to him, the Transvaal struggle will leave its mark on the world. He says that everyone has much to learn from it. He extends encouragement to the satyagrahis and assures them of justice from God, if not from the rulers. The latter, being enamored of their strength, will certainly not be pleased with satyagraha.

      Despite that, satyagrahis must have patience and continue to fight.

      Citing further the example of Russia, Tolstoy states that there, too, soldiers everyday turn their backs upon their profession. He is convinced that, though this movement has had no tangible results in the present, it will mushroom in the end and Russia will be free.

      It is no small encouragement to us that we have the blessings of a great man like Tolstoy in our task. We publish his photograph in today’s issue.

      M. K. Gandhi
      Indian Opinion, November 26th, 1910

      (One might add that Hawaii’s member of Congress Tulsi Gabbard announced on February 2, 2019 her candidacy for president of the United States, and that in all likelihood Ms. Gabbard is familiar with the Gandhi-Tolstoy letters.)


      • Skip Scott
        February 5, 2019 at 07:48

        Thanks Jerry. It’s always great to read your comments. As for Tulsi, I think she’s the only real peace candidate to be found for 2020. That said, the long knives are already out for her. “Kremlin stooge, etc.” I think her only shot is to make as big of a noise as possible, and announce a switch to the Green Party. Her platform aligns with theirs, and I think she has more “star power” than Jill Stein. We just need to get her to the TV debates so the public can see we have a real choice for a better future. There’s no way in hell she’ll get the nod from the Dems.

      • Bob Van Noy
        February 5, 2019 at 19:38

        My thanks to you Jerry Alatalo. Your follow-up was exactly what I was hoping for. I began my personal education by discovering Ralph Waldo Emerson. There is linkage to Emerson, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I think by exploring those commonalities, we can find a way to Peaceful coexistence.
        Another interesting link:

  5. mike k
    February 1, 2019 at 15:04

    Beautiful article. Gandhi is one of my heroes, as is MLK.

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