A Culture of Peace in Motion: Transnational Diffusion of the Gandhian Repertoire from India to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement

By Chabot, Sean | International Journal of Humanities and Peace, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview
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A Culture of Peace in Motion: Transnational Diffusion of the Gandhian Repertoire from India to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement


Chabot, Sean, International Journal of Humanities and Peace


The African-American community's adoption of the Gandhian repertoire during the American civil rights movement represents one of the most powerful examples of how a particular "culture of peace" can spread across vast distances and long periods of time. Civil rights activists in the United States started becoming aware of the Indian independence movement as early as 1917, the year Gandhi initiated his first campaign of nonviolent direct action in India. It took almost forty years, however, before African-Americans translated their fascination with Gandhi into a mass movement inspired by his ideas and practices. This article analyzes how transnational diffusion went through several ups and downs before the African-American community in Montgomery finally adopted the Gandhian repertoire at the end of 1955.

What is the Gandhian repertoire?

In social movement literature, the world repertoires generally refers to a set of routines that a protest group learns, shares, and applies in its interactions with opponents, potential followers, and bystanders. This set of routines emerges from actual experiences of struggle, not from abstract philosophy or ideology, and is limited by the collective knowledge, memory, and social connections a protest group can muster at the time of collective action (Tilly in Traugott 1995: 26-27). In the first place, then, the Gandhian repertoire represents the collection of practical guidelines and tactics that. Gandhi extracted from numerous protest campaigns he initiated. As initiator of these campaigns, Gandhi was author of this repertoire, and widely recognized as such. He even gave the repertoire a specific name, satyagraha, which literally means insistence on the truth by means of nonviolence. (Gandhi 1950:109). Despite his authorship, however, Gandhi based revisions in the repertoire not on his own abstract ideas but on actual experiences of collective action (Fox 1989; Dalton 1993). His focus on concrete action allowed Gandhi to continually adapt the Gandhian repertoire to changing temporal and geographical circumstances, from the struggle for Indians' civil rights in South Africa at the start of the 20th century to the independence movement in India before 1947 (Gandhi 1999). Although it is impossible to depict the Gandhian repertoire in static terms, let me highlight a few of its fundamental routines and tactics.

The Gandhian repertoire outlined several guidelines for engaging in a satyagraha campaign. At the strategic and organizational level, it emphasized self-reliance, openness in communication, self-discipline, and honorable negotiation with the authorities (Bose 1947: 175). At the individual level, it defined the appropriate behavior for leaders and foot soldiers involved in direct action campaigns. Satyagraha participants were supposed to suffer the anger of an opponent without retaliation, refrain from insults and any kind of violence, willingly accept arrest and punishment, and obey the orders of group leaders. This code of discipline symbolized-for participants, the public, and opponents alike-that satyagraha was a nonviolent social movement based on self-discipline and fearlessness, not frustration and weakness (Bondurant 1971: 39-40; Tendulkar 1952: 17). At the most practical level, the Gandhian repertoire identified steps that had to precede any direct action campaign. Before engaging in nonviolent direct action, the aggrieved group had to exhaust all available channels of negotiation and arbitration with the opposing party. If these efforts failed, satyagraha leaders could raise the consciousness of the afflicted community through publicity and agitation. Barring a resolution, this community could then engage in demonstrations and issue an ultimatum. And finally, after these legal attempts at persuasion had proven futile, the protesting group could initiate one of the various forms of militant direct action, such as the strike, economic boycott, mass non-cooperation, or civil disobedience (Shridharani 1939).

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