Martin Luther King: An American Gandhi

NID: Often labeled the “American Gandhi,” Dr. Martin Luther King recognized Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolence for the effectiveness of his own campaigns in areas such as integration and voting rights. King not only traveled to India, but also read Gandhi’s writings. He became Gandhi’s greatest disciple, by embracing Gandhi’s satyagraha as a method of struggle for the emancipation of blacks in America. It is interesting to note that though King was influenced by a variety of authors such as Walter Rauschenbusch, George Davis, L. Harold De Wolf, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, he adopted Gandhian principles of nonviolence with the intention of using them against segregation. As such, he indirectly responded to the visionary message of Gandhi who affirmed that “If it comes true, it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King embraced Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolence while embodying Jesus Christ’s theme of “love.”

Confronting the racial dilemma in America, Martin Luther King, Jr. read intensively into the Gandhian philosophy as a new and powerful weapon against injustice. Assessing the importance of the Montgomery struggle, he asserted: “We had hoped to see demonstrated a method that would enable us to continue our struggle while coping with the violence it aroused. Now we see the answer: face violence if necessary, but refuse to return violence. If we respect those who oppose us, they may achieve a new understanding of the human relations involved.” King’s analysis of human relations and of the complexity of human collectivities was mainly influenced by his personalist principle of respect for the inherent moral worth of every individual. King described personalism as “the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality.” As such, King came to regard nonviolence as an intrinsic deduction from the organizing principle of “personality.” One has to look at King’s innumerable references to the idea of “personal God” and to “the sacredness of human personality” to understand the theoretical and practical connections between nonviolence and personalism in King’s thoughts and actions. He explained this influence in these words: “in recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experience of everyday life… To say God is personal is not to make him an object among others or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him.” In one form or another, King’s testimony to personalism and his advocacy for the dignity of human personality provided him with a metaphysical grounding for his understanding of “human goodness’ and his break with orthodox theology and dogmatic religion. The notion that human beings are essentially good and formed in the image of God was compelling and provocative to King and somehow prepared his intellectual odyssey to nonviolence.”

King’s ultimate optimism on human nature was based on three points. Firstly, he concluded that the validity of nonviolence was based on the Christian concept of “agape” as the only moral absolute. Secondly, he believed in the redemptive possibility of nonviolence in human history and underlined the intrinsic conviction that the universe was on the side of justice. Finally, King’s conclusion was that nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice would produce reconciliation and the Beloved Community. In the final analysis, King considered nonviolence not only as a method of persuasion of the opponent, but also as strategy for social and political change. Again, King’s use of nonviolence as a solidaristic approach to human co-existence appears as the organizing principle of all his thought and actions. He came to understand the struggle for social justice as the immanence of God in history. The commitment to justice and struggle against evil was, in King’s view, a spiritual act and a moral duty to follow.

Martin Luther King’s major contribution to reconciliation in American society and in the world is widely recognized. King’s vision of a reconciled society was that of an inclusive community with a sense of responsibility. King explained: “At the heart of all that civilization has meant and developed is ‘community’ – the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother.” As such, King’s conception of “reconciliation” is best described as total connectedness and a network of reciprocity. The recognition of one’s indebtedness and one’s responsibility to others leads in King’s philosophy to an awareness of the interdependent character of life. “In a real sense,” said King, “all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” King’s conception of a reconciled society does not appear to have room for an individual good that may be opposed to the common good.

In other words, the self cannot truly be the self devoid of others within the community. This is mainly based on the fact that mutual recognition and reconciliation embody not only a sense of inclusiveness, but also that of mutual dependence among the members of the community. It is interesting to note that King’s notion of inclusiveness is an intercultural imperative rather than a mono-cultural sense of belonging. King proclaimed: “All men are interdependent. Every nation is an heir of a vast treasure of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed…We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women.” That is to say, King’s vision of the Beloved Community brings together the two themes of emancipation and self-transformation. While much of Gandhi’s teachings and writings were based on self-sacrifice and non-possession as means to attain a universal harmony among human communities, King insisted on the “world-wide brotherhood” and an ability “to remain vigilant to face the challenge of change.” According to Gandhi, “ Those who have followed out this vow of voluntary poverty to the fullest extent possible…testify that when you dispossess yourself of everything you have, you really possess all the treasures of the world.” And King would passionately bring the Gandhian principle of moral and spiritual self- transformation into conversation with the challenges of the global world by affirming: “The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools…. We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.”

As we can see King’s vision of reconciliation and interrelatedness evolves into a global intercultural imperative that could be broadly understood in the realm of world affairs. Both Gandhi and King present us with attractive proposals for thinking the two concepts of “emancipation” and “reconciliation” in postmodern times. Ultimately, for both of them, the path toward emancipation and reconciliation in a global world must embrace the radicality of “fellowship” and “neighborliness” as the window that makes reconciliation possible. By taking Gandhi beyond India, King hoped to achieve a fundamental change in the structures of American society. The point is that though King saw the African-American nonviolent movement as an effort to revive the perennial dream of American democracy, he tried to bring a fresh meaning to it by formulating his own dream as that of equal opportunity and solidarity.

Gandhi, M.K., Nonviolence in Peace and War, Vol. 1: Ahmedabad, India, Navajivan Publishing House, 1942, p.124
King, Martin Luther, “Our Struggle” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1986, p. 77
King, Martin Luther ., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, New York: Harper & Row, 1958, p. 100
King, Martin Luther, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in Testament of Hope, op.cit. , p. 40
King, Martin Luther, “The Ethical Demands For Integration”, in A Testament of Hope, op.cit. , p. 122
King, Martin Luther, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, in A Testament of Hope, op.cit., p. 626
Ibid, p.626
Gandhi, M.K. , From Yeravda Mandir: Navajivan Publishing, Ahmedabad, 1937, p.25
King, Martin Luther, “Where Do We Go From Here?” in A Testament of Hope, op.cit. , p. 620

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