Excerpt From: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The power of nonviolent action

“In the twentieth century, the practice of nonviolence is most vividly associated with two outstanding figures. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led what was essentially a liberation movement to expel the British from India through nonviolent resistance, while also using nonviolent techniques to address structural violence—the violence caused by poverty, colonialism and caste. The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the symbolic leader of the American civil rights movement, used nonviolent struggle as a form of social protest and mobilization for legal reforms…

Both Gandhi and King defy simplistic interpretations or quick characterizations. Their uniqueness suggests that no particular mold shapes great leaders of nonviolent movements. They arose from different cultures, religions and epochs, yet they both believed that nonviolent approaches can be adopted by anyone with the will and desire for positive social change. Both believed in nonviolence as a universal principle and a transcendent value, yet they understood that not everyone could make their commitment. They knew that many of their adherents had previously used violence. Although they are often described as visionary, far more consequential is how intensely practical they were. In their respective struggles, they wanted to minimize anything negative and maximize the chances of success. Nonviolent behavior was, for both of them, a means of transforming relationships and crating peaceful transitions of power. No religious or spiritual vows were required by either man as a condition of participation and, in fact, they learned through their own endeavors that nonviolent methods were effective whether religiously motivated or not. Neither sought sainthood or martyrdom.

Gandhi was often torn between different paths, his thinking was never static, and his views were not simplistic. His campaigns span the period from the end of the nineteenth century to the years following the Second World War, an epoch of momentous worldwide change. He was a pioneer in leading eight militant struggles during the course of that time: against racism, against colonialism, against the caste system, for popular democratic participation, against economic exploitation, against the degradation of women, against religious and ethnic supremacy, and on behalf of nonviolent methods for social and political transformations. Because of the breadth of his concerns, there is, in a sense, a different Gandhi for each reader. The taking of initiative and action were more important to Gandhi than the written word, although he was deft at shaping public opinion through his writings. Having shown amazing temerity during the nearly eight decades that he lived, it is difficult to keep in mind that leadership did not come easily to him. He started his adult life suffering from an overpowering shyness that interfered with his ability to speak publicly, even in small gatherings.

Nor did Martin Luther King arrive at leadership easily. He was a reluctant leader. A Baptist minister who sought to serve his congregation, he did not seek the mantle of leadership that was wrapped about his shoulders by the black people of Montgomery, Alabama. Were he alive today, he would probably not recognize some descriptions of himself. The civil rights struggle in the Southern United States was genuinely a mass movement; King would have shied from the notion of a single leader of a phenomenon diversified into many local movements, each with its own leaders, many of them women who were very poor and lacking formal education. Yet, with his eloquence and ability to reach both the learned and the untutored through his expansive and gifted preaching and oration, he came to personify a complex, unwieldy and erratic movement that was rarely able to plan anything more than a few weeks in advance…

In some ways the road taken by each of these extraordinary men to reach a commitment to nonviolence was similar. They both trained themselves in principled nonviolence and adopted it as a creed for living. Once embarked on the path to such an ethical position, however, they also remained convinced that nonviolent struggle was the most practical way of wielding power while minimizing harm. Both led by example. Preaching and living the principles of tolerance and dialogue, both fell to the bullets of assassins. Both were among the greatest contributors to the twentieth century and progenitors of the twenty-first.

As long as there is strife, hostilities, ethnic cleansing, religious unrest, internal conflicts and threats of military occupation, people will turn to Gandhi. His usefulness will not end unless conflict ceases. As long as injustice, racism and oppression of minorities persist, King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ will be read. Gandhi and King prepared the way for the continuing quest. The potency of present-day movements that have been directly or indirectly influenced by them are the best proof that they still speak to us.”

pp. 4-6