When the Mahatma Met Jesus: Gandhianism, African American Evangelism and the Fight for Racial Justice

By Arsenault, Ray | Cross Currents, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

When the Mahatma Met Jesus: Gandhianism, African American Evangelism and the Fight for Racial Justice


Arsenault, Ray, Cross Currents


Ed. Note: In Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, the first full-scale book on the Freedom Riders by a professional historian, University of South Florida history professor Ray Arsenault offers a number of examples of the intersection of race and religion during the Jim Crow era of the Deep South. Some were horrifying. Others inspiring. An example of the former occurred in a courtroom in Asheville, North Carolina in 1947. Black and white activists were being tried for their part in the Journey of Reconciliation, a precursor of the Freedom Rides of the Sixties. The courtroom judge insisted on using "Jim Crow Bibles." "Along the edges of one Bible had been printed in large letters the words 'white,'" explained Jim Peck, one of the riders in 1947. "Along the pages of the page edges of the other Bible was the word 'colored.' When a white person swore in he simply raised his right hand while the clerk held the Bible. When a Negro swore in, he had to raise his right hand while holding the colored Bible in his left hand. The white clerk could not touch the colored Bible."

In this excerpt, Arsenault describes the influence those earlier freedom riders, steeped in the traditions of the Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, had on the group of activists emerging in Montgomery in the Fifties under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

During the immediate postwar era, the radical wing of the civil rights struggle was small, predominantly white, and fragmented among several organizations. Concentrated in New York, Chicago, and other large Northern cities, the radicals included followers of Mohandas Gandhi, Christian socialists, labor and peace activists, Quaker pacifists, Communists, and a varied assortment of left-wing intellectuals. Though ideologically diverse, they shared a commitment to militant agitation aimed at bringing about fundamental and even revolutionary change. Like India's Gandhi, they dreamed of a world liberated from the scourges of racial prejudice, class oppression, and colonialism. Open to a variety of provocative tactics--economic boycotts, picketing, protest marches, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action--they operated on the radical fringe of American politics. With perhaps a few thousand adherents, the radical approach constituted something less than a mass movement, but the social and political turmoil of the Great Depression and the Second World War had produced a vanguard of activists passionately committed to widening the scope and accelerating the pace of the struggle for civil and human rights.

In 1946 the most active members of this radical vanguard were affiliated with two interrelated organizations, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and its parent organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). It was within these groups that the idea of the Freedom Ride was born. Founded in Chicago in 1942, CORE drew inspiration from the wartime stirrings of decolonization in Africa and Asia and from the recent success of nonviolent mass resistance in Gandhi's India. It also drew upon a somewhat older tradition of nonviolent protest nurtured by FOR, founded in 1914 at an international gathering of Christian pacifists in London.

As FOR youth secretary, Bayard Rustin returned to the pacifist track that he had followed as an American Friends Service Committee volunteer, immersing himself in the writings and teachings of Gandhi and pledging his loyalty to nonviolence, not just as a strategy for change, but as a way of life. FOR executive director A.J. Muste encouraged and nurtured Rustin's determination to apply Gandhian precepts to the African American struggle for racial equality, and in the spring of 1972, the two men joined forces with other FOR activists to found the Committee (later Congress) of Racial Equality. "Certainly the Negro possesses qualities essential for nonviolent direct action," Rustin wrote prophetically in October 1942. …

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