In the fall of 1950, the 21-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., then a theology student at Crozer Seminary in Chester, Pa., heard a lecture on Mohandas K. Gandhi by Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. The message, King later wrote, "was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi's life and works."
King had been troubled: The Christian pacifism that appealed to him spiritually might be too weak to contend in the rough everyday world. How could justice be done and the lot of impoverished and oppressed people be improved without force and violence in the cause of righteousness?
Gandhi showed him how.
"As I read," King later wrote in "Stride Toward Freedom," "I became deeply fascinated by [Gandhi's] campaigns of nonviolent resistance. My skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.
"Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.
"For Gandhi," King continued, "love was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."
How had Gandhi shaped love into an instrument, and what were the sources of his inspiration?
The interactions were complex. As King drew upon the Eastern philosophy of Gandhi, Gandhi had reflected on the Western wisdom of Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau -- who in turn built on Eastern texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads.
"There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and war," Thoreau wrote in the essay "Civil Disobedience," "who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them. There are 999 patrons of virtue to every virtuous man."
How, then, to close the gap between principle and practice? Thoreau's answer was "peaceful revolution. All men recognize the right to revolution, that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government when its tyranny and efficiency are great and unendurable."
Tolstoy, in "The Kingdom of God is Within You," renounced the use of force and preached "inward perfection, truth and love." This was consonant with the Hindu idea of "ahimsa" -- nonviolence in all thought and action -- but Tolstoy saw in nonviolence not mere avoidance of violence, but an active method of conduct.
Gandhi used these ideas to confront injustice in South Africa, where he lived for many years before returning to India, where he became a world-renowned figure.
The boycotts and protest marches he organized were at first termed "passive resistance." Gandhi disliked the term; his resistance was nonviolent -- but active, not passive.
He coined a new word: "satyagraha." "Satya" is truth, which equals love, and "agraha" is firmness or force. Truth-force, then, or love-force. Truth and love are attributes of the soul, and King later spoke of his weapon as "Soul Force."
Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote, "is not a method for cowards." It demands courageous resistance and a humane attitude toward adversaries, who must be "weaned from error by patience and sympathy" -- weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated. An eye for an eye, Gandhi said, leaves everybody blind.
Gandhi's goal was not to defeat the British in India, but to redeem them through love, so as to avoid a legacy of bitterness. Violence creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. Satyagraha reconciles love and force; it aims to exalt both sides.
In a letter to the British viceroy in India a few days before the famous 1930 Salt March, Gandhi wrote: "My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people. I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own."
The march was an act of imagination, dignity and showmanship. British law made it criminal to possess salt not obtained from the government monopoly. The ascetic Gandhi had not tasted salt in six years, but he objected that salt was as essential as air and water, all the more so in India, where men and beasts toiled and perspired in tropical heat. He and his followers would defy the law and procure their own salt.
Seventy-eight strong, they set off on foot. Collecting marchers as they passed through one village after another, they walked for 24 days and covered 200 miles until, at the seaside, many thousands watched Gandhi bend and take up a pinch of salt deposited by evaporating sea water. He was now a criminal.
The act touched off a nonviolent insurrection. Indians all along the coast collected sea water and began making their own salt. Other acts of noncooperation spread throughout India. The British authorities filled the jails with 60,000 political prisoners. Police rained blows on unarmed and unresisting protesters. But they were no longer masters of India. The British lingered for 17 years more, but India was now free.
A generation later, King used the same weapon of nonviolent confrontation in the Montgomery bus boycott and the other actions that ended legal segregation in the United States and secured the passage of civil rights laws. King's distinctive addition was the Christian concept of "agape," a Greek word meaning a disinterested love for all people, in contrast to erotic or family love.
"It is pretty difficult to like some people," King admitted. But by appealing to the good in the oppressor, loving resistance (agape resistance) could bring about a transformation in the human heart and take man a long step closer toward universal justice.
"To meet hate with retaliatory hate," he said, "would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate, violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding" -- to open him to the gift that God has given him for brotherhood.
When critics accused King of leaving his marchers defenseless before the violence and hatred of white oppression, he said:
"Our defense is to meet every act of violence toward an individual Negro with the fact that there are thousands of others who will present themselves in his place as potential victims. Every time one schoolteacher is fired for standing up courageously for justice, it must be faced with the fact that there are 4,000 more to be fired. If the oppressors bomb the home of one Negro for his courage, this must be met with the fact that they must be required to bomb the homes of 50,000 more Negroes."
"I'm tired of violence," he said. "And I'm not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can't be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.
"If humanity is to progress," King said, "Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk."
Pub Date: 1/19/98