Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in India

“To other countries I may go as a tourist,” he declared on touching down at Delhi airport, “but to India I come as a pilgrim.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States – a day that commemorates not only Dr. King’s birth but his ideals of peace, social justice and racial and class equality. This Alabama Pastor turned activist was the driving force behind the American Civil Rights Movement. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was the youngest man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

A little explored side of Dr. King’s struggle was how another great leader from the east, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aka Mahatma Gandhi, had made an indelible impression on him. Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King went to India from February 2 through March 10, 1959 as guests of Prime Minister Nehru in efforts to study and learn more about Gandhi’s philosophy and techniques of nonviolence.

In The Bystander: John F. Kennedy And the Struggle for Black Equality, Nick Bryant, explores this relationship further. “As I quickly discovered, many of the main heroes of the book – all spent formative portions of their careers in India. They were committed Indophiles – or more accurately, Gandhiphiles“, he states. He names Chester Bowles, the Deputy Secretary of State in the Kennedy administration, J K Galbraith, the cerebral Harvard economist who had long argued that America would never live up to its democratic ideal unless its system of racial apartheid was completely dismantled; then there was Harris Wofford, who toiled as Kennedy’s chief civil rights advisor and the authored a book called India Afire.

On returning to America in the early 1950s, Mr Wofford discussed these ideas with a young preacher based in Montgomery, Alabama, the so-called ‘cradle of the Confederacy.’ His name was the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr King himself made the long journey to India in 1959, three years after the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott had made him a hero on the subcontinent.

Dr. King drew parallels beween the righteousness of Gandhi’s cause to dismantle British rule and his own to dismantle segregation. Dr. King used the same tactic of mass civil disobedience which Gandhi had pioneered with the Dandi Salt March 33 years earlier.

Perhaps the greatest untold gift by India to America might be that it gave inspiration to the American Civil Rights Movement.

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