Reflections on the African-American Encounter with Gandhiji: A Letter

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator, with certain unalienable rights. That among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ stride. From every mountain side, let freedom ring…

Dear India,

As an African-American and consequently someone who has deeply experienced the complexities, the beauty, and the complications of a hyphenated identity, I am, irreconcilably, the product of both struggle and triumph, of grapples with inequality and long-sought after procurements of freedom, of intense love and intense hate, of war and peace. I am the living testimony of justice secured through non-violent movements and am here in India as a direct consequence of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. And somehow, I am here, perhaps less directly, as a consequence of Mahatma Gandhi and his successful conquest for peacefully acquired liberation in India.

What is interesting about the intersection of our histories is that one informed the other, that the Fathers of our nations were mutually inspiring, that the liberation of my people probably could not have happened without the liberation of yours.

Throughout the struggles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King suggested that the Indian independence movement could be a prototype for the African-American liberation struggle in the American South. What’s more, King was acquainted with a number of admirable African-American leaders who had met with Gandhiji: Howard Thurman in 1935, Benjamin Mays in 1936, and William Stuart Nelson in 1946. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru indicated in late 1956 that he would warmly welcome Dr. King to visit India, and soon after Dr. King took him up on the offer as an opportunity to deepen his understanding of Gandhian principles– the very principles which would form the foundation of Kingian philosophy.

Interestingly, King portrayed you as “a tremendous force for peace and non-violence” and pronounced that we should want to help you preserve your soul and thus help to save our own. This brilliant and humbling idea that interdependence and internationalization of our struggles could help with world wide liberation started with Gandhiji and King. For me it starts with being here, working with the dalit communities of Delhi, and acknolwedging the philosophy behind the essential transnational linkage between African Americans and India in the mid-twentieth century.

By no means can I change or eradicate all the wrongdoings I have seen in you, but I do realize that by standing together in solidarity and thus honoring King’s philosophies, our histories, I can– we can– influence our realities and make a difference.

Yours, truly,

Ré Phillips

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on the African-American Encounter with Gandhiji: A Letter

  1. Re,

    I spent a few hours Saturday with a survivor of the 1963 – 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham. She met King as a child and shared her knowledge of King’s meeting with and embracing the beliefs/movement of Gandhi. I was moved by her sharing and I’m equally moved by your letter. Well said.


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