The Influence Of Gandhian Socialism on Du Bois and King

Mohandas K. Gandhi began agitating for the independence of the Indian people from colonial rule in the early twentieth century. In 1921, he took leadership of the Indian National Congress, leading nationwide campaigns devoted to achievement of swaraj or home rule. In 1930, he opposed the tax imposed on salt by imperial Britain, leading the Dandi Satyagraha or Salt March, an act of civil disobedience aimed at overturning the colonialist economic monopoly over salt, which was a vital resource for the Indian people. In 1942, he impressed upon the British to quit India, an appeal which led to India’s liberation from colonial rule in 1947.

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930.

King first learned about Gandhi by way of Mordecai Johnson who gave an account of his visit to India at a gathering in Philadelphia, at which King was present. He expresses how moved he was by Gandhi’s emphasis on non-violent struggle and its relevance to Christianity and summarily sought to apply Gandhian principles of Satyagraha towards the African-American struggle for civil rights in the southern United States, where social segregation of white and black Americans became both law and custom in the twentieth century. In his essay, “My Trip to the Land Of Gandhi,” Martin Luther King Jr. recounts his voyage to India in April of 1959 which he refers to in his report as “the land of Gandhi.”

It was philosopher-poet Howard Thurman who sowed the seeds for the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s led by King, when he traveled to India in 1935-1936 in search of answers to the question of the moral government of the world and the persistence of evil. Thurman, like King, came to the religion of Jesus Christ with the sociological understanding that Sunday at high noon was the most segregated hour in America. The American Negro delegation’s pilgrimage of friendship to the East under Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman is significant not only because it is the first Black Christian delegation to tour India but also because it would, in turn, influence King’s own pilgrimage to nonviolence in the fight against segregation in America, culminating in a voyage to the land of Gandhi, where he commemorated the fallen martyr.

Arranged by G. Ramachandran, the Secretary Of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Gandhi National Memorial Fund), the trip took Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and his friend, Lawrence Reddick, on a five-week tour of India. During the trip, the Kings met with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, and engaged in a deep study of Indian civilization, history, and politics as well as a prolonged consideration of the deep scars and mass devastation left in the wake of colonial rule. For instance, it is estimated that the Bengal famine of 1943, which was a by-product of the wartime policies implemented by the British during the Second World War, led to the mass starvation and death of more than three million Indians.

The Statesman, 22 August 1943, Photo depicting mother and two children in Calcutta during Bengal Famine

In commemoration of his vital contribution to the struggle against imperialism and the color line, the King embassy placed a wreath on Gandhi’s cremation site in Delhi. Gandhi had been assassinated on 30 January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a cultural nationalist stoked by the flames of national partition and violence. By contrast, Gandhi emphasized tactics of civil disobedience and peaceful non-cooperation to challenge the ruling class and opposed the partition of India into a separate “Hindu” India and “Muslim” Pakistan: he recognized that the true source of oppression was not religion but rather, Western civilization and recommended the unity of Hindu and Muslim Indians against colonial oppression and the independent resolution of internal differences.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and wife Coretta Scott King lay a wreath at Rajghat ( Gandhi Memorial) during a visit to India in 1959.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King lay a wreath at Rajghat ( Gandhi Memorial) during a visit to India in 1959.

Martin Luther King Jr. saw in his leadership of the Indian independence movement a valuable political resource for the struggle of black Americans against white rule and social segregation in the United States. Like Gandhi, love and truth are central forces in King’s political ideology, but he called upon a higher love than romantic or sentimental love, a Love capable of compelling people to sacrifice individual interests in the service of the greater good of the national struggle and the liberation of humanity from the color line. He affirmed that

Non-violent resistance does call for love, but it is not a sentimental love. It is a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on itself suffering. While I understand the reasons why oppressed people often turn to violence in their struggle for freedom, it is my firm belief that the crusade for independence and human dignity that is now reaching a climax in Africa will have a more positive effect on the world, if it is waged along the lines that were first demonstrated in that continent by Gandhi himself.’

Similarly, it was on the basis of the recognition of the common struggle of Indian, African, and African-American peoples against Western civilization that led Du Bois–who was himself foundational to King’s thought–to write to Gandhi in 1929, inquiring after his efforts to win freedom for the Indian people and asserting, with a grace that can only come out of a sincerity wrought by urgency, the necessity of uniting the darker races of humanity against the color line and white rule. In the letter, Du Bois writes

I am the Editor of a small magazine, The Crisis, which are the circulation of about 30,000 copies amongst educated American Negroes. I very much want a message from you to these 12 million people who are the grandchildren of slaves.

Du Bois, being a prolific scholar and the editor of a major publication–the NAACP’s flagship news service, The Crisis--was well aware that Gandhi began his revolutionary career in South Africa, where he studied and practiced law in addition to experimenting with various political groups. He is frank about Gandhi’s mistakes during his early years, recalling his error in siding with Boers momentarily before aligning with the British during the Boer War, characterizing this phase in his life as “one of those contradictory occurrences which so often faced Gandhi with reality and made him readjust his ethical and religious theories.”

Nevertheless, he underscored that

It was no accident that Africa,not Asia, showed Gandhi his way. The old tragic continent was in the closing years of the nineteenth century, the critical center of the triumphant imperialism of expanding Europe. Here with gold, diamonds, and slaves, Europe was collecting the finance capital and gathering the raw material and buying the tools and machinery to forge her chains across the whole world.

As a sociologist who spent his life advocating the orientation of science and government to solve social problems rather than the accumulation of profit, Du Bois recognized that Gandhi’s greatest gift was his devotion to the study and resolution of the great social evils of poverty, violence, and colonial oppression–forces that hindered the development of the darker races of humanity in the modern epoch. King would echo these sentiments, remarking in his essay that

In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) and his wife Coretta Scott King are shown with the late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal NehruMartin Luther King, Jr. (left) and his wife Coretta Scott King (right) are shown with the late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (center)

The story of Asia’s connection to Africa in antiquity and how the two had been brought into a violent unity by European slavery and colonialism would engross Du Bois his entire life. His novel Dark Princess must be read as a tribute to the struggle of Indians against British rule and the importance of their unity with the movements for black freedom in Africa and America . The World and Africa, his 1946 history of the Afro-Asiatic world, similarly concerns itself with the historical connections between African and Asiatic peoples and civilizations before European dominance. The revolutionary and scientific significance of this anthropological and historical discovery is not to be underestimated because the dominant narrative advanced by the white humanists and social scientists in the Western academy during the nineteenth century portrayed India–and Egypt–as more “European” than Southern Africa owing to the complexity of their civilizations. Du Bois exposed this thesis as a racist myth that did not reflect the truth of Africa and Asia’s linked historical development at all but rather, operated in the defense of white hegemony. Du Bois’s reasons for insisting upon the connections in the historical development of these two continents over time were thus based in his political commitment to charting an anti-imperialist history of human civilization, one which saw the continuities between Pan Africa and Pan Asia over time and emphasized the need for a political science capable of linking the struggles of the darker races for freedom and self-rule.

The connection between Asia and Africa has always been close. There was probably actual land connection in prehistoric times, and the black race appears in both continents in the earliest records, making it doubtful which continent is the point of origin. Certainly the Negroid people of Asia have played a leading part in her history… The Dravidian Negros laid the basis of Indian culture thousands of years before the Christian era.

–W.E.B Du Bois, The World and Africa

In 1929, Du Bois wrote to Gandhi requesting an article for the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Gandhi, who would lead the famous Salt March (Dandiya Satyagraha) against the British tax on salt, declined writing the article saying that it would be useless, enclosing instead a “little love message,” as he puts it.

Here is what the message said:

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. For, as the old wise men have said, truth ever is, untruth never was. Love alone binds and truth and love accrue only to the truly humble.

M. K. Gandhi


1st May, 1929

© 2019 Divya Nair

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