How Gandhi sparked solidarity across religion, race, nation and gender
He inspired thousands, including women and the poor, to reinvent civil disobedience to battle racism in the United States
In March 1940, a young African American woman named Pauli Murray was arrested on a bus in rural Virginia. “We did not plan our arrest intentionally,” Murray wrote to friends. “The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of satyagraha on the spot.” Murray had long studied Gandhi’s example and was eager to bring satyagraha into the struggle against American racism. In February 1936, after meeting African American religious leaders, Gandhi had declared, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” Activists like Murray fulfilled Gandhi’s prophecy by creatively deploying satyagraha in buses, trains, cafes, stores, schools, and jails throughout the United States (US).
The story of satyagraha in America is often told as a simple tale with a small cast of heroes: Rosa Parks is arrested on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and a young 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr emerges to lead his people to freedom. When I needed a cover image for my first book, I tried to purchase a photograph of King standing in front of a framed portrait of Gandhi. In retrospect, I was lucky that I couldn’t afford that image. King’s embrace of Gandhi’s legacy is a rich and powerful story. But it has obscured the full history of satyagraha in America, and has reinforced a “great man” theory of change, according to which all of us can rest assured, content in the knowledge that a saviour will someday arrive to lead us to a better future. While Gandhi and King both deserve to be studied, the story of satyagraha in America includes thousands of heroes, many of them women and working class people, who reinvented non-violent civil disobedience in the struggle against American racism.
They were not alone. Many Indians helped bring satyagraha to America. In the spring of 1941, one year after Murray was arrested on that bus in Virginia, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay boarded a segregated train on a journey across the American South. The train conductor told her to leave the “whites-only” car, but she refused. When the conductor realised that Chattopadhyay was not African American, he demanded to know “from which land she came”. She replied, “It makes no difference. I am a coloured woman obviously and it is unnecessary for you to disturb me for I have no intention of moving from here.”Chattopadhyay used the term “coloured” as a bridge between her own identity and that of the African Americans who regularly suffered the indignities of racism in public transit. This was not a fleeting gesture. Chattopadhyay actively forged solidarities with African American activists, and located the fight against British colonialism within a worldwide struggle against white supremacy and other forms of oppression.
Like Chattopadhyay, many African Americans understood their efforts as part of a global struggle against racism and imperialism, a struggle in which Gandhi was not just a symbol of non-violence, but also a “coloured” leader who challenged white racism with radical techniques of mass protest and confrontation. The renowned African American thinker and writer, WEB Du Bois, perhaps the most influential advocate of anti-racist solidarity among the “darker peoples” of the world, repeatedly held up Gandhi as an example of anti-racist activism. I wonder what Du Bois, Martin Luther King, or Pauli Murray would have made of recent efforts to portray Gandhi as racist. To be sure, there are good reasons why Gandhi has been criticised for drawing racial distinctions between black South Africans and Indians, and for failing to partner with black South Africans against white oppression. During much of his time in South Africa, Gandhi’s writings and speeches repeated the racialised tropes of “savage Africans” popular among white imperialists. Gandhi’s words and actions deserve criticism. His critics often overlook, however, the evolution of Gandhi’s views on race. Although he remained focused on the rights of Indians, Gandhi came to recognise the suffering of black South Africans and to sympathise with their struggles. He praised and emulated John Dube, the first president of the African National Congress. Later in life, Gandhi vocally opposed racism in South Africa, India, and the US. At a time of growing intolerance and xenophobia in many parts of the world, including the US, Gandhi’s anti-racist legacy is necessary now more than ever.
So is the legacy of the many African Americans who found in Gandhi a source of hope and inspiration. After her arrest, Murray worked with lawyers to use her case to challenge Jim Crow. She hoped to combine civil disobedience and legal suits to bankrupt companies that practised segregation. Hers was no narrow conception of satyagraha. Murray’s efforts were complicated by a fact she tried to keep from the public record — that she had been dressed as a man at the time of her arrest. At a time when LGBT individuals faced severe repression within social justice movements (an injustice that persists today), Murray had striven to keep her gender and sexual identity private. She was not the only Gandhian advocate to contribute to the civil rights movement despite facing discrimination based on sexual orientation. At its best, satyagraha empowered activists like Murray and Chattopadhyay to forge solidarities across the borders of race, nation, religion, gender, and sexuality, and thus to fight injustice of all kinds.
Nico Slate is professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University, and the author of Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind, and Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India
The views expressed are personal