Father of India's independence and advocate of nonviolent resistance, he pioneered a tactic used by the U.S. civil rights movement and proponents of freedom everywhere
By MARTIN LUTHER KING III
Last December, I was invited to address a community of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. There was a great deal of excitement about this occasion because I was to share the stage with Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi. As descendants of two of the most notable figures of the 20th century, Arun and I share a special bond. Each of us bears a slight resemblance to the ancestor whose surnames we carry. We are both descended from men for whom "freedom" and "justice" were not just words, and not just rights and privileges that accompanied birth. And on this occasion, we both understood that while our personal words may have been meaningful, it was the symbolism of our presence that was powerful. Gandhi and King.
That evening in San Francisco, Arun and I gave our audience our childhood memories and adult knowledge of a father and a grandfather--two brown men, small in stature, who peacefully defeated the tyranny of two mighty empires. Two men of immeasurable character who influenced others with the dimension of their belief. Two men of spiritual conviction--Eastern and Western--who demonstrated the universal power of love. Two men who lived in peace, yet died violently at the hands of assassins. Gandhi and King.
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I lost my father when I was 10 years old. In the first decade of my life, Martin Luther King Jr. was merely "Daddy" to me. In the second decade, I learned more about my father through the accounts of others. As I entered my 30s and offered myself for public service, I began to internalize the methodology behind my father's leadership. That is when I began my real education about Mohandas Gandhi.
As a youngster, I often heard references to my father in the same breath as the man many called the Mahatma, or Great Soul. For a long time, the term "nonviolent protest" rang hollow in my young mind without a reference to "Gandhian nonviolent protest." It was later in life, however, and decades after Gandhi walked among the people of India, that I came to fully appreciate the magnitude of his teaching and the effect that he had on my father--and, ultimately, on my nation.
Perhaps nothing is more synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement than the concept of "the march." Whether it was the infamous 1963 March on Washington or the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the march was the embodiment of the cries of the people. I am confident that my father was influenced by the amazing result of Gandhi's Salt March of 1930 and the power of Gandhi's command of civil disobedience.
When I was a youngster, the story of the Salt March appeared to be almost mythical in proportion. Beginning in Ahmedabad, Gandhi walked nearly 400 km in 24 days to the Arabian Sea. At each rest stop, he explained his mission to the crowds that gathered and invited them to join him. The small group of followers in Ahmedabad grew to a massive throng numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The line of human bodies reportedly stretched for 3 km.
Gandhi was an expert at symbolism, and my father became an apt pupil. Like Gandhi, my father knew that human compassion is universal. A single act of one could quickly ignite the action of many if it appealed to what is just and right within the human spirit. Upon reaching the Arabian Sea, Gandhi waded into the water and picked up a handful of salt, an unlawful act. This act of civil disobedience--one frail hand "mining" salt--sparked the revolution for freedom from British rule in India.
Two-and-a-half decades later, an African-American seamstress refused to move to the back of a Montgomery bus to allow a white person to be seated. At the time, this was against the law in the southern United States. Rosa Parks' simple act of civil disobedience sparked the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which was led by a very young Martin Luther King Jr., and it thrust him into his place in history. Equipped with knowledge of Gandhi's campaigns, King orchestrated many more acts of civil disobedience, and the American civil rights movement was born. This movement ultimately freed African Americans from second-class citizenship in their own country.
Today, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization co-founded by my father, I practice civil disobedience as a matter of course. Most recently, others and I were imprisoned for staging protests against the many acts of police brutality still committed in the U.S. In July, we staged a boycott against the state of South Carolina for its refusal to replace the Confederate flag, which many Americans of all colors consider to be a symbol of hatred and racism in the southern U.S. The tactics of Gandhi and King are as viable today as they were when these great men walked in our midst.
As time passes, however, I find that history continually rewrites Gandhi and King, transforming them into men of passive resistance. This is perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions that is common to both men. There was nothing passive about the motivation or the actions of either. Both men were driven by the fierce desire to create a just environment, not only for their native people, but for all humankind. My father was fond of saying, in the spirit of Gandhi, that "peace does not mean the absence of violence. It means the absence of conditions which lead to violence." Both men pursued this goal aggressively.
My father often referred to Gandhi's words: "There is a limit to the development of the intellect but none to that of the heart." I remind myself of these words as I continue the mission of Martin Luther King Jr. to free our world from the vestiges of violence, racism and poverty. Both he and Mohandas Gandhi knew that once we embrace the concept of brotherly love--a love that knows not color, nor race, nor nationality, nor gender, nor class--that the enemies of peace and justice would eradicate themselves. Truly, the battles of Gandhi and King were for the heart of the human race.
That December night in San Francisco, I was uplifted by the crowd that had gathered in what was proclaimed the "season of nonviolence." Men, women and children of diverse backgrounds had come together to celebrate the contributions of Gandhi and King to world peace. Arun and I gave them the link to the past they sought, but they gave me a glimpse into the future that I have been seeking. They showed me that people will continue to pledge themselves to the tenets of nonviolence and peaceful coexistence and that the lives of our father and grandfather were not lived in vain.
Martin Luther King III is president and chief executive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization that was co-founded by his father Martin Luther King Jr.