PropaGandhi Ahimsa in Black America
By Vijay Prashad 

The influence of Gandhi on the American non violence movement 


Nonviolence is back, even during this period of sustained violence engendered by 9/11. From the ten days of 1999 in Seattle to the fights over the Guinean migrant Amadou Diallo (slain by the New York police) and the Puerto Rican island of Vieques (where the U.S. military persists in its bombardment), ahimsa [without violence] is the order of the day. Arms crossed, brave protesters put themselves forward through acts of civil disobedience against a system that increasingly appears unconcerned with the will of the people. Performances of democracy such as these are a riposte to the general cynicism of the population, half of whom in the advanced industrial states disdain to exercise their franchise, while many wallow in the misperception that there is no alternative to the madness that has befallen us. Wealth must be redistributed upwards, ethnic violence is natural, and some people are stupider than others: such mantras of neoliberalism slowly wend their way into our minds as the unbeatable dictum of our age. Some who are enraged turn to the weapon of nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic of a widespread anarchic disregard for the direction of our societies.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), also known as the Mahatma (“Great Soul”) is all over this return of ahimsa. “Another Skinhead for Peace,” says one T-shirt in Berkeley, California, as Puerto Rican radicals on the island form study groups to read his autobiography and to study his movement. This Gandhi has not been known in the United States at least since he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., was restrained with excessive praise. Cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson points out that King’s legacy is shrouded “in the cloth of superhuman heroism,” which in fact “is little more than romantic tissue.” Almost all Indian towns decorate their central marketplace with a statue of Gandhi, while the mainly African American sections of U.S. cities pay honor to King with an avenue named for him. While neither men held governmental office, both are honored with national holidays (an honor, in the United States at least, that is reserved otherwise for presidents). In asphalt, in concrete and in calendars, these men will forever be preserved. To honor these men is necessary, but there is a danger that the passive way we often pay homage to them might dishonor the very ideology that motivated their life. When transnational corporations use the image of Gandhi and King to market their products, it seems clear that the simple act of remembrance is insufficient. The ashes of Gandhi and King must be uneasy with these memories.

To remember Gandhi, and King, is not to simply concentrate on these men, because they represented movements and ideas that transcended their biographies. This brief article is intended to recall the complex way in which Gandhi’s ideas traveled to the United States, not simply, as it is often implied, by King’s study of his autobiography, but by the intervention of any number of ordinary activists who felt that non-violence as a method might play a crucial role in the struggle for freedom in the United States. And, moreover, this article will emphasize how Gandhian ideas came to be differently interpreted by those who had an awareness of the struggle for social justice against racism and by those who did not see this as the central feature of our time. The latter took to Gandhianism as a moral philosophy, abstracted from its own social and historical conditions. The former, mainly African Americans, took Gandhianism not as an ahistorical set of truths, but as a “blueprint” for freedom.

Shridharani’s Gandhi
In 1934, Krishnalal Shridharani (1911-1960) arrived in New York City to study at Columbia University. A veteran of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March and of his university, Gujarat Vidyapith, Shridharani spent over a decade in the United States as a student and as a popular interpreter of Gandhianism. In three important books Shridharani (an otherwise accomplished Gujarati fiction writer) tried to announce the view of nonviolence he learnt at the feet of Gandhi. Two of his books drew vivid portraits of Gandhi, War Without Violence. A Study of Gandhi’s Method and Its Accomplishments (1939) and The Mahatma and His World (1946), while a third book offered a witty, partly autobiographical, and critical account of an Indian’s time in the United States, My India, My America (1941).

In the latter book Shridharani felt the need to counter the fantasy of U.S. Orientalism: “Indians are not Maharajahs, Swamis, fortunetellers, elephant boys, and snake charmers so often as they are people like any others, plain flesh-and-blood creatures, with common likes and dislikes, with human charms and drawbacks.” 

The illusion of India as the epitome of a sensational spirituality continues to linger in the cobwebs of the U.S. imagination, in our own day as much as in Shridharani’s. For this Gandhian, what was most painful was a mainly white approach to the Mahatma that saw him as another mystical Swami, as a “Hindoo God” whose magic can be conducted without the necessary democratic creation of a mass movement. “The very word ‘faker’ is an American refinement of the Arabic ‘fakeer,’” wrote Shridharani, “which means an impecunious saint — and what a refinement!” Churchill called Gandhi a “half-naked fakir,” a phrase that was echoed in The New York Times and used frequently to describe the principled leader of the Indian nationalist movement.
When I first read Shridharani I felt a sense of dÈj‡ vu, as the white pacifists seemed to resemble all those pious faces that looked in my direction if I ever mentioned the name of Gandhi. He seemed to conjure up contradictory feelings of self-abnegation and self-righteousness, of the need for charity and the compulsion to talk about one’s personal sense of sacrifice. “American pacifism,” Shridharani wrote in 1941, “is essentially religious and mystical. West can be more unworldly than East, and the history of the peace movement in the United States is a good illustration of that.”

Indeed, a summary of the mainly white pacifist movement shows us that from its 19th Century inception with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and of the New England Non-Resistance Society (the Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison), white pacifism assumed that all humans are inherently good and that acts of individual courage would engender social change. The “East,” especially India, became the mirror through which the US pacifists constructed their own sense of spiritual retreat from the world (the best illustration of this is Thoreau’s refuge in the Vedic texts).

In the early 20th Century, John Hayes Holmes, the founder of the American Anti-Enlistment League (1915), of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (1915), and of the War Resisters League (1923) drew his inspiration from a Gandhi saturated with religion. After his two meetings with Gandhi, Holmes wrote, “Gandhi must be understood primarily and fundamentally as a religious being. Outwardly one saw only a man religiously faithful to ideals, but inwardly was the spectacle of a man seeking to find and to surrender to the mystical promptings of the spirit.”

In a famous 1921 sermon, Holmes declared, “When I think of Mahatma Gandhi, I think of Jesus Christ.” Shridharani’s critique of U.S. pacifism was to the point as one reads the words of Holmes: if Gandhi is installed as a mystical Messiah, then does one need to account for the social and historical conditions that produced the movement that dragged Gandhi along for the ride. 

Gandhi captured the hearts of a mass movement because he was able to draw upon the idealism of the young revolutionaries of the 1910s, upon his education in social justice at the hands of the Tamilian miners of Natal (South Africa) in 1913-14 and of the Champaran plantation workers of Bihar (India) in 1916, and upon the Indian National Congress’ extensive, but largely inactive, organization. Even the Messiah needs an organization, an ideology, and, as Shridharani put it, a “blueprint for a bloodless revolution.”

A host of white pacifists traveled to India to see how Gandhi operated as the leader of the vast conspiracy against the British Empire. Deeply interested in the potential of Gandhianism, a Boston corporate lawyer Richard Gregg went to India in 1925, lived in Gandhi’s ashram, studied the movement and published his very fine 1934 manual, The Power of Nonviolence, perhaps the first major study of nonviolent direct action that was some way removed from pacifism. American Friends Service Committee founder Rufus Jones met Gandhi in 1926 at his Sabarmati ashram, learned the intricacies of Satyagraha (action on the basis of truth, Gandhi’s main political vehicle), and then returned to the United States to reshape the Friends (founded in 1917), particularly to deepen efforts amongst the working class in the United States (among Native Americans, African Americans, the Appalachian poor and the North Carolinian textile workers). 
Yale University undergraduate David Dellinger did not travel to Gandhi’s ashram, but he helped create the Newark Commune or Ashram in 1939, a Gandhian community from which they served the poor (along the grain of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker houses as much as of Gandhi’s ashrams).

These pacifists did not see Gandhianism as mysterious or as something otherwordly and therefore foreign. They trod against the grain of white supremacy to find within Gandhianism techniques useful for liberation of oppressed people within the United States.

Among ashrams, the most famous was the Harlem Ashram formed in 1940 by Jay Holmes Smith and run by Richard T. Templin. Both men came to India as Methodist missionaries and both took great interest in the nationalist movement. When the imperialist government asked them to shun their pro-Gandhi work, they wrote a famous letter to the Viceroy. “We had not been long in India before we discovered that many of our senior missionaries, and the vast majority of our Indian Christian friends as well, considered it as intended to make us pro-Government, even in relation to the noble, non-violent effort of the current nationalism to induce in that Government a change of heart.” Smith and Templin, being white men, posed a serious threat to the idea of white supremacy so they were expelled back to the United States.

While in India, Smith and Templin joined sympathetic Indian Christians to produce the theory of Kristagraha, a meld of Christianity and Satyagraha. Satyagraha means Action on the Basis of Truth ( being truth, and being action), so Kristagraha meant Action on the Basis of Christ.

When Smith and Templin returned to the United States, they ran a relatively successful Kristagraha experiment among the hosiery workers of Reading, Penn., after which they set up the Harlem Ashram and the Non-Violence Direct Action Committee. Shridharani, who visited the Ashram and knew the two men, noted in 1941 that Kristagraha “can well be used for the good of all concerned when legal procedures fail and leave direct action as the only alternative — in the problem of race relations, for instance, and in that of sharecroppers. But the most natural soil in which Kristagraha could grow in this country in the interest of democracy is in the field of labor.”

Harlem in the 1940s was filled with social and political ferment, from Father Divine’s Peace Movement to what the African American journalist Roy Ottley called “fakirs and charlatans” (such as High John the Conqueror, love portion purveyor, Rajah Rabo, dream-book author, and Madame Fu Futtam, a seer). The Harlem Ashram fell into this world, and joined in the ongoing protests against draft registration and anti-Black business practices (the movement called Jobs-for-Negroes whose most famous figure was Abdul Hamid Sufi).

Gandhi in Harlem
In 1943, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a piercing comment on the limitations of the white pacifist adoption of Gandhianism. For one, the tactics of Gandhi’s movement (fasting, prayer, and self-sacrifice) had been “bred into the very bone of India for more than three thousand years,” so that it would not be appropriate to draw techniques from outside the material reality of U.S. life. A few years before, Shridharani wrote that “what might have been just the thing to do in India may appear ridiculous in America,” for instance, it would not be necessary for a U.S. Satyagrahi to fast “unless fasting had the same social significance in both countries.” The fast was a way to draw people together by an act of self-abnegation, developed as it was from Gandhi’s familial experience of his mother’s weekly fast and from Gujarati ascetic traditions of faith. Furthermore, Satyagraha in India relied upon the oppression of the demographic majority of the population (who made up “practically the whole working class of India”), held under the heel of British racist imperialism. Since blacks only made up a fragment of the population, could a Kristagraha strive for more than limited pressure against the state? Blacks should not “blindly copy methods without thought and consideration,” Du Bois counseled, even though the population was not willing to “submit to arbitrary and illegal discrimination.”
Templin responded in the New York Amsterdam News, with a strong defense of the Harlem Ashram. Gandhi, he argued, “borrowed his idea of non-violent civil resistance from the early Abolitionists of the United States,” including Thoreau, so that his ideas should not be seen as foreign.

But Templin did agree with Du Bois that the pacifists’ view of Gandhi was “most superficial,” not developed in their own context. Nonviolent direct action, for Templin, promoted “the rugged fearlessness of self-help and independence,” two traits well respected in African American life. Du Bois, who introduced Gandhi’s struggle to the African American community in periodic dispatches from the very first issue of The Crisis (and elsewhere), recognized that much could be learnt from Gandhi, but not either in an imitative fashion or else by the translation of Gandhi as a mystic.

Drawn by the courage of nonviolent direct action (and by cheap rent), the African American political activist James Farmer moved into the Harlem Ashram that same year. But he soon left the Ashram because he was “not one for asceticism.” Bayard Rustin and Farmer worked within the mainly white pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, and both spent time with Shridharani in discussion over the potential for the translation of Satyagraha into the anti-racist struggle. Unlike the asceticism and the piousness of the white pacifists, Shridharani’s more human lifestyle (with drink, smoke and sexuality) appealed to these young Americans. Shridharani’s 1939 book became the “semiofficial bible of the Congress of Racial Equality,” and Farmer published an abridged version of it in FOR’s journal Fellowship.

“The pacifists fail,” Shridharani wrote in 1939, “because they regard peace as an end in itself. As a result, they minimize the significance of other human values, though they may be subjective, such as freedom and justice, which roil people’s blood and cause great social and political upheavals. The pacifists’ dream is just a pious wish with underpinnings of mere ‘good will.’ NaÔve in their conception of human nature, they refuse to take into consideration the pluralistic genius of the human psyche. When their hope of peace is frustrated in the process of social change, as often happens, they are in a dilemma. The demand for social change offers them but one alternative, viz., that of upholding the violent method or of maintaining the status quo. There is no other choice left them, for the pacifists fail to realize that something more than good will is required to grease the wheels of a changing order.”

In 1941, Shridharani pointed to the kind of error made by well-intentioned white pacifists (who toiled in the heritage of Thoreau’s civil disobedience during the 1849 US invasion of Mexico). “Many an isolated reformer has organized inter-racial house parties and dances, and this YMCA method does bring a few Negro girls and boys in contact with a few whites. But it is a process of individual reform and not a broad social solution.” Farmer’s 1941 memo to A. J. Muste, head of the FOR, is along the grain of this sort of Gandhianism: “we must withhold our support and participation from the institution of segregation in every area of American life, not an individual witness to purity of conscience, as Thoreau used it, but as a coordinated movement of mass non-cooperation as with Gandhi. Gandhi has the key for me to unlock the door to the American dream.”
Farmer sought lessons from the Gandhian lexicon of struggle, from Shridharani’s “blueprint of a bloodless revolution” which drew the best of Gandhi for the US terrain. Before and alongside Farmer, Du Bois turned to Gandhi not mainly for lessons, but to boost the morale of the oppressed. In far off India, Gandhi’s barefoot army took on the armed might of the British Empire with as much elan as Ethiopian armed forces defeated the Italians at Adowa in 1896.

Du Bois was agenuine propagandist for Indian and Chinese nationalism, fierce in his belief (like Lenin) that the rising in the East was a sign of the end of white supremacy. For the 20th anniversary issue of The Crisis Du Bois asked Gandhi, in 1929, to pen a note, and the Mahatma did so: “Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grand children of the slaves. There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is dishonour in being slaveowners. 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.”

Gandhi, as ever, grounded his ethics in love and truth, a language alien to Du Bois, who translated Gandhi’s words with a brief comment. “Agitation, non-violence, refusal to cooperate with the oppressor, became Gandhi’s watchword and with it he is leading all India to freedom. Here and today he stretches out his hand in fellowship to his colored friends of the West.” The techniques of direct action and the ethos of solidarity were far more important to Du Bois than the mysticism of white pacifism. Gandhi was both, but while Du Bois and Farmer sought to highlight the former, the Harlem Ashram and Holmes pushed for the latter. Individual heroism and self-abnegation meant little to those who suffered the long-arm of white supremacy, just as Gandhianism in India was often understood by the independent masses as a license to rebel against authority (as in Chauri Chaura, 1922, when some peasants set fire to a police station and killed its inhabitants).

Gandhi did not start his own movement. It began with the resolute struggle of the Indian peasantry, who turned to his leadership for a host of reasons. He represented a class that could stand between the inchoate utterance of mass rebellion and the bureaucratic speech of the state; he was part of the infrastructure of the national bourgeoisie, frustrated into organization as the Indian National Congress, but until his arrival, fairly lackadaisical in its annual meetings; finally, he adopted the style and idiom of the peasants in an attempt to earn their trust and loyalty.

British imperialists demeaned the will of the peasants with the canard that Gandhi appeared to them as an incarnation of Vishnu, a Godhead. The Civil Rights movement in the United States, too, did not start from its leadership, but it began in the adamant acts of the black working class in the South, whose refusal to ride at the back of the bus or accept second-class jobs in a racist job market was spurred by experience in the World Wars and within the legacy of the CIO unions.

If Gandhi learnt his politics among the working class in South Africa and India, Martin Luther King Jr. too learnt to bend to the will of the people while he picked tobacco in the outskirts of Hartford, Conn. Protected from the worst of white supremacy by the elite African American circles of Atlanta, King did not face the everyday trauma of the black working class. With a few fellow Morehouse College students in the summer of 1944, King worked in the fields alongside black workers.

While in Simsbury, CT., he called his mother and told her that he wanted to be a minister, that he had found his calling here. King, like Gandhi, was led by the will of the Montgomery masses, by such stalwarts as high school student Claudette Colvin and seamstress-activist Rosa Parks.

The courage of these ordinary people drew King into the struggle, and the Gandhian experiences of Farmer, Rustin, and eventually James Lawson (who was in Nagpur, India, as the boycott in Alabama began, but who returned to stand beside King until 1968 as a trainer of the Freedom Riders from his headquarters in Nashville).

“Christ supplied the spirit,” King wrote, “and Gandhi provided the method.”
For the black struggle, Gandhi was not to be a mystical, almost extra-terrestrial, Vishnu-like figure, but he was to be a shrewd political tactician whose weapons of the weak could beadopted elsewhere, with care. Gandhi, the “unwilling avatar” (in Shridharani’s phrase), was transformed in black circles into a comrade in arms.

Source, and copyright 2002: Little India All Rights Reserved