Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, certain skeptics in America come above ground to remind us of the man's numerous failings and perhaps distract us from the image of him as some kind of American Gandhi - whether or not King himself made any such claims for himself or his practices. (Interestingly, the same skeptics also question the credentials of Nelson Mandela.) Thanks to the elaborate and highly illegal surveillance of King by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, we are informed of King's womanizing and his contacts with various communist organizations - information that Hoover threatened to make public if King did not desist from speaking, marching, and "resisting." Skeptics claim that these shortcomings compromise King's status as a reverend, his movement and his importance as a leader.

But to what extent was King a disciple of Gandhi? Doubtless his insistence on non-violence was derived from Gandhi's concept of Satyagraha, which was, in India, a doubtfully effective means of resistance to British rule. It was a practice, which Gandhi first developed in South Africa, of dispassionate disobedience - through strikes, physical obstruction (lying down in front of trains), passively offering oneself up to beatings by police, etc. At the end of his visit to India in 1959, King spoke in a speech about Gandhi's teachings: "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation."

Every one of Gandhi's tactics seems to have been employed by King and his followers except, significantly, hunger strikes. Gandhi also advocated Bramahcharya, which is a deeply religious - in this case Hindu - practice that requires such things as total abstinence from eating meat or animal products, but also an avoidance of sex except for the purpose of begetting children. Gandhi himself certainly adhered to these practices, since he took pains to be, and to represent himself as, a kind of saint.

The striking thing about Gandhi is that he was probably sincere in his adherence to these principles, and didn't engage in them out of any real sense of vanity. He was one of the most extraordinary individuals who ever lived, but turning his principles into a movement was beyond even Gandhi's powers. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s success at adapting some of Gandhi's tactics attracted public attention to his cause. Whether or not it saved lives or reduced the amount of violence remains questionable.

What is not questionable is the courage of king, both during the many marches and protests in which he took part, and in the days leading up to his assassination, when there were so many threats to his life that he was probably aware that it was only a matter of time before he would be killed. Gandhi knew this as well, and showed his own courage by refusing to change his living patterns or employ bodyguards.

But what is most significant to me is where Gandhi and King differ, and why that difference makes King a more important figure in American history. Unlike Gandhi, King showed no evident interest in being a saint. Despite being an ordained Baptist minister, he made his non-violent doctrine a secular one, and only referred to God or the "Promised Land" well within the traditions of American political rhetoric and in his capacity as a black reverend.(1)

Unlike Gandhi, King made no attempt to represent himself as holier-than-thou, as anything other than a man, not some naked guru sitting on a prayer mat making empires tremble. He never attempted to make himself into a symbol of his movement, even if he eventually became one, whose personal survival was essential to its success. In fact, in his 1963 "I have a dream" speech, he alluded to the fact that he possibly would not be alive to witness the success of the movement.

It was because of his personal shortcomings that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a far better political leader than Gandhi. If he was martyred for his movement, at least he died with his boots on. India was already independent, and partitioned, when Gandhi, bootless, was killed.

(1) The trouble with King's pronouncements is that you can't easily separate what he said from the extraordinary way he said it.

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