In Search Of Satyagraha: Richard Gregg, Gandhi, and King’s Pilgrimage to Nonviolence

Dr. King imprisoned for his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

In the following letter to Richard Bartlett Gregg (1885-1974), a white American pacifist and social theorist, presents his thoughts on Gandhi had a significant influence on Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the American Civil Rights movement responds to an offer of assistance from Gregg, who had written to King inquiring if he could help with arranging the publication of his account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story. When asked to choose the five books that shaped his philosophy after his leading role in Montgomery’s struggle for peace, King named Gregg’s 1934 book, The Power Of Non-Violence, along with Gandhi’s Story of my Experiments with Truth and Louise Fischer’s 1950 autobiography of Gandhi as decisive influences. Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, and Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis were also influential. The work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian who opposed the Third Reich, also shapes King’s approach to the struggle for black freedom in the United States.

Gregg was the first American to study Gandhi’s thought seriously in the early twentieth century. He had traveled to India in the early 1900s, but did not commit himself seriously to the anti-colonial struggle until the 1920s, as his biographer Joseph Kip Kosek writes. While in India, Charles E. Andrews, one of Gandhi’s earliest followers who was an English clergyman Gandhi met whilst in South Africa, introduced him into Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram. Gregg resided at Sabarmati Ashram for a number of months. Here, he also had a chance to meet with Rabindranath Tagore, like Howard Thurman, who would meet Tagore in Shantiniketan during his own pilgrimage of friendship to the East with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman. Gregg stayed in India for four years and studied deeply non-Western conceptions of science, particularly economics and its relationship to Indian social development, authoring books such as Economics Of Khaddar and A Preparation for Science, both of which defended the Gandhian approach to science rooted in faith, as a force in the moral government of the world rather than serving as an appendage of Western exploitation.

Central to the story of the struggle against segregation in the South, is King’s pilgrimage to non-violence, which gave fruit, in turn, to his physical pilgrimage to the Land of Gandhi in 1959, a detail he alludes to at the close of his letter to Gregg. Indeed, it was Gregg who provided King with contacts to meet during his 1959 visit to India. That same year King would write the foreword if the second edition of Gregg’s book, The Power Of Nonviolence. In it, King praises Gregg’s elaboration Of Gandhian principles at a time when the world was teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Of King’s foreword to The Power Of Nonviolence, Gregg writes:

Your introduction will greatly help the sale of the book and thus spread further Gandhi’s ideas and help solve conflicts of all kinds.

Gregg himself had by now become a notable authority in Gandhian studies, having recently also authored an influential book called A Philosophy of Indian Development, which he had enclosed with his offer of assistance with publishing King’s manuscript–King had initially thought of publishing Stride Towards Freedom directly through the Gandhi Memorial Trust.

In his preface to Stride Towards Freedom, King describes the book as

The chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love and who in the process acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.

He further discusses the epiphany of nonviolence in the sixth chapter of the treatise, which is titled “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” Here, Gandhi’s influence on King’s conception of history is particularly relevant for it illuminated the true significance of nonviolence in the resolution of human strife. Gandhi argued that history is the by-product of infractions against the law of love, of its disavowal in struggles between families, castes, classes, and nations for power. Similarly, King defines history in Stride Towards Freedom as

a series of unreconciled conflicts and man’s existence is filled with anxiety and threatened with meaninglessness. While the ultimate Christian answer is not found in any of these existential assertions, there is much here that the theologian can use to describe the true state of man’s existence.

He saw nonviolence as the restoration of the law of love, and the beloved community which had inspired in him a “quest for a method to eliminate social evil.” King comments extensively on the Gandhian concept of Satyagraha in an early draft of Chapter Six which I quote from here, defining it in terms of his own autobiography of the problem of evil in the world.

The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha(satya is truth which equals love, and grahais force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me.

As he weighs the philosophical evidence attesting to the power of love as a social force, he “delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi,” which abated his initial skepticism about nonviolence as a political strategy and moral position. Once he came to this awareness, he realized that nonviolent and principled opposition “was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Gandhi himself was faced with a nation whose industries had been destroyed and whose cities and villages were severely depressed by poverty, mass famine, illiteracy, and widespread misery created byBritish colonial rule. It was not only that the poor did not possess the arsenal to fight the might of the imperialists: more importantly, Gandhi saw that to use the method of violence to obtain freedom was in truth a concession to Western civilization because it was based in a Machiavellian worldview–that means need not coincide with ends. Ultimately, King was won over to this position.

The African-Americans of Montgomery, similarly, were

exhausted by the humiliating experiences that they had constantly faced on the buses

in the face of the brutal “Jim Crow” regime, which had been institutionalized through the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in the wake of the repression of the Black Reconstruction, a period in the history of the United States when the black working class emerging from slavery struggled to advance democracy in a lawless land.

Accordingly, King vowed to organize the Gandhian approach into a “socially effective situation” for Montgomery. In the process of insisting upon the principle of love-unto-truth, the people of the town were thus able to find their soul-force, which is capable, literally speaking, of moving mountains, if one believes in the power of spiritual unity in the transformation of human reality and in the elimination of human suffering.

If it is true, as the Bhagavad Gita says that it is the soul which moves the body and the body which moves the world, then it was the spiritual movement of their soul-force, anchored in a love of truth, the love of freedom, which spurred mass action in the story of Montgomery, which intimately links African-America to India. If God is truth, love, life, and light, then to hold firmly to the truth–to commit satyagraha–is an act which moves the pilgrim closer to the Universal Light (vishvabhanuh) a practical action capable of marshaling “inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give” in the “midst of outer dangers,” as one navigates the spiritual sea (dharmasagara). In this way, the power of love–the love of truth and the truth of love–together transform the “fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope” as we stride towards the New Jerusalem.


Mr. Richard B. Gregg

Dear Mr. Gregg:

On returning to my office a few days ago I found your very kind letter of October 27, on my desk. I was very gratified to know of your interest in having my book published in India. I have been deeply concerned about the book being read in India, since I gained a great deal of inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.

There has already been some discussion of this with my agent and the publishers. A few months ago an outstanding Gandhian disciple, Kaka Kalelkar, visited our city and on discovering that I had written a book suggested having it published in India through the Gandhi Memorial Trust. I immediately placed my literary agent in contact with Mr. Kalelkar. Since that time I have been so involved that I have not had a chance to consult the agent on the outcome. I am now getting off a letter to New York to find out what has been done in this line. As soon as I hear from them I will be glad to contact you concerning future possibilities. I have no concern for making any money from an Indian publication of my book. My only concern is to share my message with the people of that great country.

Thank you for your suggestions concerning our next best steps. I gained a great deal from this practical, yet profound advice. Incidentally, I have received a copy of your book, A Philosophy of Indian Development, and I am deeply grateful to you for it. Although a busy schedule has prevented me from reading it thus far, I hope to take some time out in the next few days to go through it. I am sure that it will be very helpful and stimulating.

It is always gratifying to know of your interest in our struggle and realize the presence of your moral support. I look forward to the day that we will be able to meet personally.

Very sincerely yours, 
Martin Luther King, Jr.

P.S. Mrs. King and I will be going to India around the first of February and we plan to spend about six weeks in that country. I would appreciate any suggestions that you have concerning our visit and also the names of persons that it would be helpful to see.

Extracted from Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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