In the following letter, Dr. King writes to Dr. William Nelson, dean of Howard University, a historically black university in Washington D.C., in order to ask whether he knew of any books or pamphlets on the caste system in India. Here, King comments upon the significance of his trip to India, which he deems “full of meaningful insights,” decisively re-anchoring his commitment to non-violence. He expresses his desire to dialogue on these matters to Nelson. The letter is yet another testimony to the unity of India and African-America in the great freedom struggle of the twentieth century, when the dark world struggled to free itself of the long night of bondage and slavery, as Dr. King put it.
Amongst liberal and neoconservative pundits alike, Gandhi is reviled and torn apart for all manner of crimes imputed to his character which was recognized as saintly by the world’s masses during his extraordinarily purposeful lifetime. And yet why the sudden stigma when one utters the name Gandhi today in the hallowed halls of the academe? When did the Mahatma begin to cull in us a silent undertow of shame, and with it, a need to apologize for a great man’s greater deed of freeing an oppressed nation?
Strangulations of Gandhi’s spiritual and political development in the Western academy altogether too easily forget his sacrifice for the truth, which he defined very clearly as the liberation of the human soul-force. Thus, his greatest contribution to the sciences and the arts, and to human inquiry in general, lies in his emphasis on the law of love. Gandhi recognized in the oppressor’s inability to love, a weakness, an ignorance, and above all, a terror stemming from a profound loneliness and spiritual crisis.
William Nelson had visited India some years before King, and it was he who recommended contacts for the King embassy, which traveled to India in 1959, an episode King reflects on in passing here. He expresses his regret at not being able to secure any books on the subject of caste oppression whilst in India, though he, like Thurman, was taken aback by it. Nelson was himself a Gandhian who taught a course at Howard called “The Philosophy and Methods of Non-Violence.” In 1957, he played a decisive role in establishing the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Howard. At its seventh annual gathering in 1966, King gave a lecture on the oneness of mankind and the sanctity of the human brotherhood, just two years short of his tragic assassination on April 4, 1968
April 7, 1959
Dear Dr. Nelson:
I trust that you are now settled down after your six month stay in India. We met many people in India who knew you and they never tired of mentioning your name in the most favorable manner.
In a real sense my visit to India was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. While I would not be so rash as to pretend to know India after such a brief visit, I do feel that I gained many meaningful insights that will deepen my understanding of nonviolence, and also my commitment to it. I hope that we will have an opportunity to sit down and talk about the trip in the not-too-distant-future.
I am writing you mainly to inquire whether you have any books or pamphlets on untouchability. If so, I would like to borrow them for about two weeks. I am in the process of making a study of untouchability, and unfortunately, I left India without securing any material on it.2 If you have such material, and can find it possible to mail it to me, I would be more than happy to reimburse you for the costs involved. And you can expect me to return it within two weeks
There is another matter that I would like to explore with you which I will be With best wishes, and warm personal regards, I am writing you about in a few days.3
Very sincerely yours,
Martin L. King, Jr.
Very sincerely yours,
Martin L. King, Jr.
1. King had hoped that Nelson would serve as his guide in India, but Nelson left the country before King arrived. Nelson did consult on some of the arrangements for King’s visit before returning to Howard University (Stewart Meacham to King, 12 December 1958, and Bristol to Johnson, 24 December 1958).
2. In his travel account published in Ebony,King compared the caste system in India with American segregation (see King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” July 1959, pp. 235-236 in this volume).
3. In a 24 April letter, King invited Nelson to participate in a nonviolent institute being planned by SCLC for July 1959. Nelson agreed to do so in a 30 April reply. For more on the institute, see Resolutions, First Southwide Institute on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation held on 22 July-24 July 1959, 11 August 1959, pp. 261-262 in this volume
Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.