Review of: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action

By Mary King

UNESCO

7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France
orig. 1999, 529 pages, $47.00

of nonviolent struggle as it was preserved and of nonviolent struggle as it was preserved and transmitted between generations, and its continuing relevance in conflicts worldwide.

Dr. Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO, asked Mary King to write a new, accessible account of Gandhi and King. He later suggested the topic of Chapter Three, how Gandhian ideas and techniques reached Dr. King—an account central to the book’s message. This message is, first, that moral and political genius are not required in nonviolent action. Second, leaders and rank-and file must understand the nature and dynamics of nonviolent struggle. They must study, learn, and be trained. Third, nonviolent struggle can place opponents in a dilemma they cannot solve by violence.

Dr. King studied Gandhi in divinity school, but when the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott began he did not entirely understand effective action. This part of Gandhi’s legacy was passed to him by people such as Bayard Rustin and the Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. Rustin critiqued movement strategy and showed Dr. King the problems in avoiding repression for fear of being hurt.

Accepting and opposing repression increases the movement’s power, he taught, and weakens an opponent when people withstand violence and the weapon of fear is lost. Lawson had studied the recent history and theory of nonviolent action, and had spent some time with Gandhian activists in India. As FOR regional representative in the South, Lawson trained many activists in workshops, including SCLC members and students in the Nashville, Tennessee sit-ins [See Nov/Dec 1999 Fellowship, pp.4-8]. This chapter, as also the one on African-American contact with India, is itself a significant contribution to the literature. A final chapter is on continuing nonviolent struggle worldwide. Unfortunately, UNESCO did not include an index.

Mary King offers many observations on nonviolent action, often in paragraph-long mini-lessons. She explains, for example, why there is a cost to the movement when activists use violence. As Gandhi writes in a chapter of comparative quotations from the writings of both men, “Every movement which survives repression, mild or severe, invariably commands respect, which is another name for success.” Letting this possibility slip away through violence actually weakens the movement.

One lesson I learned from the book is how Gandhi and King prefigured the effects of struggle by teaching how to act as if success were already achieved. When people made khadi cloth in Gandhi’s ashrams, for example, they practiced relying on themselves, not on Britain. Likewise, the civil rights movement’s idea of the Beloved Community prefigured a non-racial, non-repressive society. Success in each of these movements was nowhere complete, but as Mary King reminds us, struggle is a tutorial in the possible.

Ronald M. McCarthy

Originally published in the January/February 2000

issue of Fellowship