The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi goes well beyond the Indian Freedom Struggle. He has influenced countless movements and struggles for freedom and democracy around the world, decolonization struggles, including the civil rights movement within the United States.
And on today’s show, we speak with P. Anand Rao who is a professor of Communications and Digital Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I also happen to be an alum of Mary Washington. So, I was very excited to find on a listserv that I’m a part of — called M.K.Gandi.org — that a professor from Mary Washington wrote a piece for his local newspaper about the influence of Gandhi on the civil rights movement.
And then as I started to reflect back, I remembered there was a statue right across from the building where I studied philosophy – the Classics, Philosophy and Religion department — of a great Civil Rights leader, James Farmer. And I thought, “Well, maybe it isn’t unlikely that a professor from Mary Washington would be speaking about the civil rights movement and Gandhi, given that there’s actually a deep legacy between the University of Mary Washington and the civil rights leader, James Farmer.
Apparently, James Farmer lived in the area where the college is, around Fredericksburg and then became a professor in history there, and gave talks on the civil rights movement, on the formation of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Freedom Rides and so forth.
Dr. Farmer: Those two demonstrations helped the nonviolent direct action movement become a large movement and well known throughout the country and probably throughout the world.
I reached out to Rao to see if he could talk to us a little bit about what research he’s done into this connection between Gandhi and the civil rights movement. And also, how it ties into the legacy of James Farmer.
And we’re also very happy to share on this episode of Nonviolence Radio some excerpts from talks given by James Farmer that were from the Federal Elections Commission. They recorded them. And we want to thank the students at the University of Mary Washington in this James Farmer Legacy Project for making these talks available to the public.
So let’s turn now to P. Anand Rao.
Anand: Well, hi. My name is Anand Rao. I’m a professor of communication and chair of the Department of Communications and Digital Studies at the University of Mary Washington. And I’m here to talk a bit about my interest in this life of Gandhi and also Gandhi’s influence on the American civil rights movement.
Gandhi: There is orderliness in the universe. There is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings.
Anand: I’ve long been interested in Gandhi, in part because of family interest. My dad is from India. In our visits to India, we enjoyed seeing museums and monuments to Gandhi – in New Delhi, Mumbai, elsewhere in the country. There are always wonderful stories about Gandhi when you’re talking to somebody from India or you’re in India.
I remember hearing from some of my older relatives when I was growing up who were in Mysore, talking about the times that they remember Gandhi visiting Mysore in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Quite a while ago. But some interesting stories about protests that were held and the police then arresting everyone and driving them outside of town, trying to break up the Independence Movement whenever they could.
Gandhi: In my tour last year in Mysore I met many poor villagers and I found upon inquiry that they did not know who ruled Mysore. They simply said some God ruled it.
Anand: So, when I started to research more about Gandhi, that led to this opportunity to give a guest presentation for the Great Lives lecture series at the University of Mary Washington. It’s a series that’s given in the spring. And it’s a biography series. So, I had the opportunity to give one of the presentations. And they asked me who I’d like to speak about. And I was certainly inspired by Gandhi and wanted to do some more work on research in Gandhi, Gandhi’s life, and there’s some facets of Gandhi’s life that have always fascinated me. For instance, his time in London as a young scholar as well as his time in South Africa.
But the other connection that was a particular interest to me was the inspiration that Gandhi and the Indian Independence Movement played for the American civil rights movement. And it’s something that I quite honestly did not know a great deal about a number of years ago. But I certainly knew that there was an influence there between Gandhi and work done by Dr. James Farmer.
Dr. Farmer: I wanted to find nonviolent alternatives to violence in the resolution of social conflict situations, especially racial conflict because that was my big interest; that had been my life.
Having grown up in the deep south that was what motivated me more than anything else.
Well this search, this quest for nonviolent alternatives to violence led me, quite naturally to a study of Gandhi, the little brown man of India with his loincloth.
I read all that I could find about Gandhi and by Gandhi.
Anand: I arrived at the University of Mary Washington in 2002. And unfortunately, that was a few years after Dr. Farmer had passed away. But he still holds a great influence, and there’s a great presence of Dr. Farmer on campus. Dr. Farmer, one of the big four civil rights leaders in the United States, but is often not recognized and not given the prominence that I think he really deserved. And so, it’s been really an honor to be able to learn a lot more about Dr. Farmer since I arrived at Mary Washington, finding about his work, founding CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, his work inspiring and developing, leading the Freedom Rides.
Dr. Farmer: The concept there was that only people who live in a locality have a right to be concerned about what happens in that locality and the assumption was that there was something wrong for people who don’t live there to involve themselves in the action in a given community.
Well in the Freedom Ride we rejected that concept.
We felt that any American citizen wherever he lived in the country, had not only a right but a duty to be concerned about injustice wherever he or she saw it in this country and had a right to go there and try to do something about it.
And that became a very vital part of the Freedom Rides.
Anand: And we’ve had so many great programs we’re I’ve learned a great deal. We have a first-year seminar that is about James Farmer and his role in the civil rights movement. I’ve worked with students that have helped to document some of his – and take some of the recordings of his lectures and put them online, and to be able to document social movements. And in 2011, we held months-long celebration of the Freedom Rides as a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Freedom Rides, and was able to meet a number of the Freedom Riders. They came to campus. We invited them in. We were able to screen the documentary, Freedom Riders, based on Ray Arsenault’s book. And it was a really wonderful experience.
And so, through these years, I’ve learned a great deal more about the role that nonviolence and Gandhi’s influence played in the way that Dr. Farmer served as a leader in the civil rights movement. And so, that was certainly a spark and an interest, that when I – I said, “I’d love to stop and talk about Gandhi, but I certainly want to talk about and spend part of that time, at least, discussing the influence that Gandhi had on the American civil rights movement.
And so, that is really what led me into accepting that invitation to give the talk. And over the last year, I’ve done a lot more of the research and learning more about Gandhi’s life, more than just what you learn in pop culture or just might learn when you’re going through K-12 learning about Gandhi.
British Newscaster: Ms. Madeleine Slade, the English daughter of an admiral who now prefers to be known as Mirabehn. She’s one of Mr. Gandhi’s most devote disciples. And just behind her comes Mr. Gandhi dressed as he said he would be in just his loincloth, even in the chilly climes of Europe. And he’s carrying with him his pots and pans which he declared at the customs. He was trotted around Marseille to several receptions, and made one or two speeches which frightened the French authorities.
Anand: As I mentioned, the time when he left India to study in London to become a barrister – his time in South Africa and what really led to his role as a leader in a political movement. Something that really didn’t come, I think by some accounts, didn’t come naturally to him. It’s not something that he initially was looking for. But that he rose to that occasion, given some of the experiences that he had. And there’s a lot more that I’m still delving into.
And you know, I’ve tried to be fair in my representation of a lot of research, that it still feels so superficial in terms of how much has been written about, and even just by Gandhi. One thing that I noted in the talk is that unlike some biographies that are presented in biographical lectures that are given, you have difficulty finding enough information about the subject. Certainly, not the case with Gandhi. I mean if you look at only Gandhi’s writings, I think it’s hundreds of thousands of pages of writing that is publicly available. And that doesn’t even account for the dozens or hundreds of books written about Gandhi in the Indian Independence Movement and so forth.
So, there’s certainly a lot there. And I think that I have a research agenda for me for the coming decades to keep working on this.
Stephanie: So, I really wanted to understand the connection of the civil rights leader, James Farmer, to the University of Mary Washington College Campus.
Anand: My understanding is that a little later in his life after James Farmer was no longer as active on the national stage. You know, through the ‘60s he was certainly very active in the civil rights movement. He ended up serving in the Nixon Administration for a while. And then, a little bit later, in particular, in the later ‘70s and the ‘80s, he was effectively retired. And he lived in an area of Virginia, very close to where the University of Mary Washington is located.
My understanding is his family originated from that area around Spotsylvania. They had a family farm that he ended up retiring to and was working from. And the story that I’ve heard is that there was a member of the staff at Mary Washington, someone who I believe was working in the library who met James Farmer on a bus – a commuter bus to Washington DC, and found out that we have an American Civil Rights leader living just in our backyard. And was just regaled by stories that Dr. Farmer told him about the work that he had done.
And so, that quickly led to a discussion at the university about, “We need to invite Dr. Farmer here as a guest speaker, as a lecturer.” And what developed was that Virginia was able to create a position so that Dr. Farmer was a distinguished Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington. And he served in that role for the last decade or more of his life. And he was a very active professor. He gave a number of lectures in a large lecture class on the history of the civil rights movement.
When I’ve talked to alumns from the ‘90s, in particular, almost to the one, they will mention that course as being so influential and important in their time at Mary Washington. It’s something that I really wish I could have been there for. And I’ve enjoyed seeing some of the recordings from those lectures.
Dr. Farmer: I remember when I was a small boy growing up in Texas; I would go to the movie and every Saturday afternoon, the matinee and there was a half hour serial on Tarzan and we would sit there, front row center, balcony of course, chewing peanuts and watching Tarzan as he would swing through the trees by the vines you know [Farmer makes the Tarzan call] and then [laughs] we’d see the missionary in the pot as the heat built up underneath and the sweat was dripping from his brow and he was scanning the forest as we were too, looking for Tarzan’s inevitable and timely arrival and coming through the trees.
They would show the Africans, dancing around the pot to the tom-tom beat [Farmer imitates the tom-tom beat] and would flash a close up of the face of one of the Africans on the screen all painted and fierce.
Then I’d elbow my buddy and say ‘Irving, that’s you’ [laughter].
I don’t have to tell you what Irving’s reaction was ‘No man, that’s not me. I’m no African.
Don’t call me an African.
I’m an American’.
Well Irving was rejecting Africa and in a sense, rejecting self, and that was true of then 10, 13 million Black Irvings around the country.
Well, that was the image that we had of Africa.
We knew nothing of an African past; that is recent knowledge;
Anand: Virtually, everyone took that class. It was something that everyone wanted to have a chance to be able to work with this incredible leader.
And so, through the ‘90s, of course, he was teaching at Mary Washington. And, you know, later – he was getting to the end of his life. And unfortunately, he passed away in 1999. Before that happened, he was given an honorary doctorate from Mary Washington. And he was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton not long before he passed away.
Now, since then we’ve tried to honor his legacy in a number of ways. It was in 2011 we had such a wonderful time honoring his legacy and his role in inspiring and leading to at least starting the Freedom Rides so wasn’t able to continue with the whole Freedom Ride because his father was ill in the middle of it. You know, having a number of the Freedom Riders come to campus and speak to us about that experience. In a particular talk about their interactions with Dr. Farmer was just so inspiring. It was really eye-opening.
The culmination of all of that where two events at the end of year. One of which was that PBS sponsored Freedom Rides, where they selected college students from across the country to go on a bus and then tour the path of the Freedom Rides. And one of our students was one of the students on that bus, which was wonderful. That student actually now serves on our Board of Visitors. And so, we’re still very much in contact with him. He’s a wonderful student. I remember hearing him in his first-year seminar talking about – he was in the James Farmer [Epsem]. And he talked about Dr. Farmer’s legacy.
For him, by his senior year, to be able to be part of that Freedom Rides re-creation was really amazing. Their first stop from Washington DC was the Mary Washington Campus where they actually – interestingly enough, he missed his graduation because they left on Saturday. They came the next day and the president gave him his diploma and we held a little celebration for him with the other students, part of the Freedom Rides bus that weekend which was great.
The other item that happened that weekend was that John Lewis – Representative Lewis came and was our commencement speaker. I had a chance to meet him twice. Once at that time and talked to him before that address. And then also go and visit him with a group of students, a group of our student leaders in his congressional office. It was really wonderful to hear his stories about working as a young student leader. He was only, I think, 19 at the time when he first met Dr. Farmer and worked with Dr. Farmer, and then became part of the Freedom Rides.
And so, he was – I still remember sitting in his office and he pulled down some of the pictures from the wall to show pictures of him with Dr. Farmer to tell our students about that experience and how Dr. Farmer prepared them for the rides, prepared them for the protests and the violence that they knew they were going to see. And it was a really amazing moment for those students.
Stephanie: Next we wanted to hear more about this connection between Gandhi and the American civil rights movement. We asked Rao to speak to this.
Anand: I feel like it’s almost like peeling an onion. You keep finding other layers and connections there that are just so fruitful and really interesting connections and discussions. You know, in the early understanding of this, I certainly knew about the inspiration that Gandhi held for Dr. Farmer and the role that he played in inspiring the first students that were working on what became CORE, Congress of Racial Equality.
So, there are a number of directions that I’ve been able to take this at this stage. I have a good friend and colleague, Ben Voth, who’s a Professor of Communication at Southern Methodist University who also has some very similar interest. Part of his interest in Dr. Farmer are driven by Dr. Farmer’s connection with debate. Ben and I know each other through the debate community. We were both college debaters. We’ve coached against each other for years. And so, I’ve known him through that connection.
And so, Ben started researching Dr. Farmer given his work with collegiate debate, and especially as the college debater of Wiley College. You know, the movie, “The Great Debater” starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, of course, is largely about James Farmer as the 13-year-old who was this debate phenom. And so, that was one connection.
And over the last number of years, I’ve corresponded with Ben and talked to him about that. He has a wonderful book that came out a few years ago about Dr. Farmer, The Great Debater. And that certainly was a connection and interest. And he was working from that direction into some understanding of Gandhi and Gandhi’s influence on the civil rights movement. So, we corresponded quite a bit. And when I was preparing for this talk, I talked to Ben about the connection between Gandhi and Dr. Farmer. And Ben was very generous. He shared with me a number of documents that he was able to get copies of, pictures of, from the archives in Austin from Dr. Farmer.
And so, there were a number of materials that I was able to share within the lecture, and I’d be happy to share some of those that document a number of important aspects, representing that influence that Gandhi really had on James Farmer. One of them was a brief history of CORE that documented those early meetings where students at seminary and the University of Chicago would meet weekly, where they would get together and these were white and Black students that would get together regularly, just to talk about racial strife, talking about civil rights. And in particular, talking about the role that Gandhi’s movement played in India, in the Indian Independence Movement.
What was fascinating to me about that, is that was happening very early still within the Indian Independence Movement, relatively. Of course, Gandhi was working for decades before that. But this was around 1940 that this group of students with Dr. Farmer were working in Chicago. And it led to what many counted as one of the first, if not the first, sit-ins in the United States. And that was at the Jack Sprat Coffee House in…
Dr. Farmer: … April, I think it was in 1942, in the city of Chicago.
Sit-in, why a sit-in? And how did we come upon the idea of a sit-in?
Gandhi didn’t have sit-ins, they, as far as I know they were not necessary in his situation.
Well we took the idea of a sit-in, first we called it a sit-down, taking it from the history of labor, the labor movement in this country. In the ‘30s when the workers in the Ford River Rouge plant, when the CIO was being organized, Congress of Industrial Organizations during one strike the workers had a sit-down and took over the factory, a sit-down strike.
Anand: Some wonderful recollections of how that group of students and how James Farmer were trying to implement what Gandhi was espousing and using as part of the Indian Independence Movement to be able to inspire action here.
So, that was the first connection that I was really intrigued by. In other words, they knew that the students and the individuals that they were trying to recruit to be part of CORE were aware of Gandhi, were certainly aware of nonviolence, aware of ahimsa and the philosophy of satyagraha to be able to engage with oppressors in a nonviolent way to enact social change.
Dr. Farmer: …and finally a pilot project was set up in one city, Chicago.
This pilot project, an interracial organization made up chiefly of students, students at the University of Chicago, undergraduate and graduate students, largely white, some Blacks, using techniques, Gandhian techniques of nonviolence including civil disobedience where necessary, noncooperation with injustice, willingness to go to jail and conscience dictated, following also some of the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the American writer who said in one of his famous essays ‘most of all, I must see to it that I do not lend myself to the evil which I condemn’.
And that we read over and over again and absorbed.
So the first group was set up in Chicago
Anand: Now, that brief history of CORE talked a bit about how they would gather regularly. And it said this group of – and this is a quote from that document. “This group of socially-minded students was as much as disturbed about tension within their community as with international conflict. Therefore they turned their attention primarily to the problem of racial bitterness and discrimination in the City of Chicago.”
What struck me about that is that not only were they talking about applying this and looking at it locally, but again, there was always this connection to what the local and the international – to the national and international, to the broader struggle.
And these connections were really important to me and something that I think years ago I didn’t have a full appreciation of. This came up again and again in several of these documents and referenced it again in another book that came about the Freedom Riders where they were discussing this.
Dr. Farmer: Then we went through social dramas of role playing you know.
About half the group played the role of Freedom Riders sitting at a simulated lunch counter in a simulated bus terminal waiting room.
The other half played the role of white hoodlums coming in to beat them up; and they were pretty realistic too, I thought overly so.
They knocked us off the stools and stomped and kicked us.
The purpose of that was clear.
It was to teach us how to cover up so as to protect vital parts and hopefully prevent permanent and serious injury.
Then we went into a discussion of the scene which had just been acted out and we reversed roles and played the scene over; went into a discussion of that.
At the end of that week I honestly felt that every member of that group including myself was ready for anything, including death, which was a possibility we knew.
Anand: So, there was another one that was really interesting to me. It’s from the archival materials. There was a form that was made available to individuals if they wanted to join CORE. And at the very top was a little drawing of Gandhi.
And it said, “Gandhi and CORE, to say no to injustice. To refuse to cooperate with evil. To fight for equal treatment of all people regardless of race. These are some of the reasons why the New York CORE honors Gandhi’s memory. Gandhi showed the way. He pioneered the method of peaceful direct action on an organized level. And thus gave the cause of freedom and a powerful new weapon. Gandhi is dead, but his work goes on all over the world. CORE uses Gandhi’s way to further racial equality in America.”
Dr. Farmer: How did Gandhi do it in India? We knew of course there were many many differences between the Indian scene and the American scene, just as there are today many differences between the scene in South Africa and the scene that we confronted here in the United States in the ‘60s.
In India, the Indians were a huge majority and the British were a tiny minority and nonviolence was a rather basic part of the Hindu culture and here nonviolence is not a basic part of the national culture, rather violence is much more basic. There were many other differences too.
But we felt that the tactics, the techniques used by Gandhi could somehow be adapted and applied to the American scene and that’s what we set out to do.
Anand: So, it was really interesting to see the way that Gandhi was invoked in a lot of the recruitment material and the advertisements that they had.
Michael: Boy, that’s just wonderful. You know, what impresses us a lot is not just the tactics that they learned from Gandhi, but the spirit of it which comes from, I guess, particularly alive in MLK and his speeches, that you are not going to hate the oppressor. And that everything really flows from that. Another thing you were saying, Anand, that interested me a lot was about – I guess I’m thinking about Gandhi’s principle or concept called, “Swadeshi,” that you operate first in your local community. And from there, it influences the world. Whereas people tend to think, “Oh, there’s a lot of trouble in Myanmar or Belarus. I better go over there.” But these students kind of intuitively seemed to have grasped from him that you work first in your own local community and then it can expand.
Anand: Exactly. I think that’s really remarkable to even think about, especially working with college students. We want them to be aware of broader struggles. And that also to think about how the local impacts the broader. And that they really need to be able to act in one place. It’s a great way to address concerns of feeling helpless. You know, it seems so overwhelming. The struggle is so great. There’s so much that has to be done. How can I possibly impact any of that? By acting locally. And so, that’s really an application of what Gandhi was talking about.
It reminds me, there was a quote that stood out to me from this book, published in 1961, Freedom Riders Speak for Themselves. And this is something that’s actually available online now in .pdf. Ben had shared some pictures of some pages and I found the full text and really enjoyed going through it. There are a number of references in there to Gandhi’s influence and the way that the Freedom Riders from their perspective were employing some of the philosophy. There was one that stood out and it said – this is a passage referencing a young freedom fighter.
It said, “I had an even closer kinship with these courageous freedom fighters. The girls I met and especially the one I lived with in New Orleans are very sharp and well-informed on Africa, on the world situation, and in general. The woman I lived with is a Gandhian, but she’s much more interested in all phases of the world than simply the sit-in movement and simply civil rights.” So, that direction of recognizing and acting locally, but being aware of the broader world and what else is happening is so critically important.
Stephanie: Howard Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, were part of a delegation to go to India, and they met Gandhi there. This is a well-known interaction between the roots of the civil rights movement in the United States and the meeting and the connection with Gandhiji. So, I asked Rao if he could describe what he knows about that experience.
Anand: Sure. And this is one part of it that I’m just so fascinated with. I was at dinner last night talking about it. You know, I’m sitting with my dad and my wife and my kids and telling them about other parts that I had discovered. And you keep hearing different bits and pieces of the story. Especially when you hear different accounts of the story too, which is always pretty fascinating. And I guess what stands out to me and I’d love to tell you a little bit about what I’ve learned about this visit, when you think about – it’s kind of a study of memetics. You know, it’s the study of how an idea is germinated and how it gets shared and develops through a number of different connections.
And I think this in interesting ways speaks to what you were referencing about the understanding of the local affecting the broader – the national, the international. But also the way that an idea then can get shared and cross-fertilization through movements is so incredibly important in that way. So, thinking about the connection between what was happening in India and then certainly in the United States is something that I didn’t realize had been going on for so long.
Dr. Farmer: Why then in the ‘60s, why not in the ‘40s, the ‘30s, the ‘20s? Why not at the turn of the century? Why not in the last century after emancipation? Why did the civil rights explosion in the United States occur when it did?
Well, why then, why in the ‘60s and why not in some earlier decade?
There are many, many reasons and you no doubt before this series of class sessions is over will come up with your own reason, such as the existence of television in the 60s.
In prior decades we did not have television, television was a post World War II development in this country and what was happening in the ‘40s; the early ‘40s was not covered by televisions, there was no television. We had sit-ins then but nobody knew about it because it was not on the tube.
And thus, persons who could have gone out to do the same thing didn’t do the same thing because they didn’t know what the same thing was.
They didn’t know what others were doing in other parts of the country.
Nothing could take the place of television, that was one of the reasons of course but not a major reason.
A major reason was, one major reason was the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education, that historic, landmark decision.
The Warren Supreme Court said and this was the first time the high court had ever said that racial segregation is per se discrimination and unconstitutional.
It’s true it said it is that was the case in public education.
But if it was true in public education, then Blacks were quick to point out that if it was true in public education then why not in transportation, public transportation.
Why not in public accommodations, in restaurants, theaters, hotels, amusement centers, why not in jobs? If it’s true in public education why isn’t it true in every area of the nation’s life?
Well the courts hadn’t reached its decision easily.
There’d been a long evolution.
Anand: I think when I was growing up or when I was younger, I certainly saw that there were references made by Dr. King and Dr. Farmer, but to see that in the mid-30s that there was a delegation that went and met with Gandhi is really startling to me.
There was a planned conference, the International Student Conference in India. And so, Howard Thurman was selected to lead the delegation. It was a relatively small delegation of the American Negro delegation, but they were supported and selected by the American Student Christian Federation. So, they were selected to go on what was called, “The Pilgrimage of Friendship.” And there was a six-month tour and they toured all over. And there were some really inspiring moments.
And as I’ve read – I initially started – I zeroed in, of course, on the meeting with Gandhi. But there were some other elements there that I’d love to explore further. Reading about, you know, Thurman talking about his time in what is now Pakistan as being really inspirational in viewing this convergence of religions and the way that inspired some of his later was just really fascinating to me.
So, within this tour, of course, six months long. And Howard Thurman and his wife and another couple were there. And it was really interesting to me to learn a lot more about Howard Thurman. There’s so much more that I’d like to learn about him. You know, given his philosophical background, his role really as a feminist, as someone that some even thought, perhaps, he could be in America what Gandhi was in India. And it wasn’t really set to be. He really didn’t have, necessarily, the background or the position to do that. But he was the connection, this fiber, this connection between so much of what was going on in India and Dr. King, Dr. Farmer.
You know, finding out that he was, in fact, a classmate of Dr. King’s father. That his wife was a sorority sister of Dr. King’s mother. And that evidently soon after he came back from this trip to India, he went to Atlanta and had dinner with them. And so, you know, at the time, the author was saying that, “I think Martin Luther King at that time was probably 7 or so.” And so, not that he would have necessarily picked up a lot from that conversation, but you know, the fact that Martin Luther King later referenced Howard Thurman’s 1949 book as his favorite book, one of the most important books that he saw – Jesus and the Disinherited and how that influenced so much of what he did. It’s amazing to see that connection and those family connections, those friends connections. So, bit of a tangent there.
So, Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman were both selected to be part of this. And she wasn’t there just as his wife. She was selected because she was a noted writer in her own right. She was, I believe, the first African American to receive a degree from Overland in music. She had taught at the Hampton Institute in Virginia which piqued my interest, knowing colleagues that are in that region, and to see what she was able to do and bring to the – she had a great deal of experience as a lecturer, as a writer. And so, she was really the perfect person to be along with this delegation.
So, as they’re traveling around, read that they stopped and gave lectures around 40 different universities and cities. And then eventually when they get to Bombay, Mumbai, they’ve arranged to have a meeting with Gandhi. And so, this was – I believe it was – the day was pretty important. It’s something that I think will always stay with me – February 21, 1936. They get to Mumbai and they take a trip, a train ride for about 200 miles north. And they’re met there by Mahadev Desai who is an Indian activist who is the personal secretary for Gandhi. He meets them at the train station and transports them to this compound that’s run by the International Congress.
I read that the explanation for why they were there was that, given the different states and the principalities, that was one region that the British didn’t quite have as much control of, given some of the other leaders in the area. So, that was a little bit safer place for Gandhi and the Indian National Congress to be located. So, 1936. And it’s remarkable to think that these connections were happening there in person.
According to the accounts that I’ve read, the Thurmans and this delegation were the first African Americans to have an actual meeting with Gandhi. And it was something that they didn’t have a lot of time. They were on a somewhat strict schedule, tight schedule. They had to get back to get that – additional 200-mile train ride back to Bombay before they continued on with their trip. But when they got to the compound, there were just a number of hours they were able to meet. And according to – there was a great new book about Howard Thurman – Peter Eisenstadt. He’s written, I think, a number of texts about Gandhi. This new one just came out in February of this year and I’ve been able to look at a section of it. I have a copy coming. I can’t wait to read the whole thing.
But he writes about this and with more detail than I found in some earlier texts. Evidently, Gandhi immediately ran out and was very effusive. Desai later told Thurman that he was – Gandhi was more effusive or enthusiastic meeting them than anybody he’d ever seen him meet. And Gandhi immediately pulled out his pocket watch and said, “We only have so much time. We have to make sure we keep track of the time because I have so many questions.”
And Thurman later in his autobiography referenced this as just being somewhat overwhelmed just peppered with these questions. And there was a quote that I found where he talked about that. He said, “Never in my life have I been a part of that kind of examination. Persistent pragmatic questions about American Negros, about the course of slavery, how we survived it.” And so, there was this hour’s long conversation where Mahatma Gandhi wanted to find out everything he could about the life of American Negros and the role – and Thurman was able to give a short history of American – African Americans from emancipation up to that time. Talking about voting rights, talking about – they had questions about marriage, about mixed marriages. It just ran the gamut. It just sounded like an amazing – I can’t imagine how intense and how awe-inspiring that conversation must have been.
I think that would be an amazing one-act play, just the conversation between Gandhi and the Thurmans. I think that would have been – that really would have been something.
So, within this discussion, it wasn’t just between Gandhi and Howard Thurman. Of course, the others were involved and Sue Bailey Thurman as well. And by multiple accounts, the entire delegation started to appeal to Gandhi to come to America. But Mrs. Thurman was the one to really push the issue and to really appeal to Gandhi to come to the United States.
In this new book, Peter Eisenstadt notes that Mrs. Thurman repeatedly asked and said to Gandhi, “We want you not for white America, but for the Negros. We have many a problem that cries out for a solution and we need you badly.” And to this Gandhi replied, “How I wish I could.” He said, “But we have to make good the message here before I bring it to you.” And I remember hearing part of that snippet in a documentary years ago. I think it was Harris Wofford, actually, was talking about this in the Freedom Rides, that documentary, discussing this interaction.
And at that time, it wasn’t clear that it was Sue Bailey Thurman, actually, who was the primary interlocutor with Gandhi and talking about this, the role that Gandhi could play. And so, Eisenstadt draws the conclusion that really what Gandhi was trying to do was to say that, “You don’t really need me. You need someone else that could be the African American, the American Negro that could be the Gandhi of America.” And that’s really what he was pushing for.
And so, there’s some really great writing that I’m still exploring, looking at whether or not that could have been Thurman. Was there a push for it to be someone else necessarily? And to see how that unfolds and then inspired the next generation was really very interesting.
There was another aspect to this though that really caught my eye and that I just loved reading about. I think in part of it, thinking about and learning about Sue Bailey Thurman, just a really very impressive woman and her work as a musician. My understanding is that at the end of this meeting, and Thurman writes – and this is where Eisenstadt says there are a couple of different accounts. Desai says that this is something that Howard Thurman pushed for. And Thurman says that Gandhi requested it.
But according to Thurman, Gandhi said as they were about to close the meeting, “Will you sing one of your songs for me? Will you sing, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? And there’s an account that Gandhi had held the Negro spirituals in very high regard and saw them as more important than the Western hymns because of the role of the oppressed and because of the authenticity of the American Negro experience.
And so, Thurman says that when this – they started to sing the song. And Sue Bailey Thurman is the lead singer. And the other members of the delegation are doing backup vocals. And I could just envision the scene. It must have been just amazing. Said that Gandhi and his followers that were there all bowed their heads in prayer during the song. And they followed that with one other song that, according to the book, says that it was We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.
Once that was done, Eisenstadt paints this picture and it just seems like such an amazing moment, that there was this long silence. And Desai writes that at that point Thurman said, “We are ready.” He said, “The Negros were ready to accept the message of nonviolence to Gandhi. And to say “We’re going to take this message back.” And that to which Gandhi replies, with such an important phrase that we’ve all seen, has been referenced time and time again. He replied, “Well, if it comes true. It may be through the Negros that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
That’s something that I’ve heard time and time again, read stories about how Martin Luther King and, you know, after one of the meetings – I think it was with Bayard Rustin. When they were having an early meeting in the ‘50s and at the end of a very long day, Rustin said to King, “Do you remember what Gandhi told Thurman?” And they have that phrase and the importance that the American civil rights movement could bring that message to the world.
There was one last thing that Eisenstadt says that I thought was really a great quote. And this is one of the reasons why I think that date is going to stick with me for a while. Is that “The civil rights movement, of course, has no single starting date. And the question of when it had begun has been vigorously, if inconclusively debated. But if one had to pick a day, February 21st 1936, the date of Gandhi’s benediction to the budding revolution is as good as any.”
Anand: I thought that that was a pretty powerful statement.
Stephanie: Sounds like you’ve really been able to geek out on this research. And that you’re loving it.
Anand: Yeah. I really am. Yeah, you’re right. I mean it’s just amazing to me to think about these early interactions and then to view these connections. You know, I think part of it is – looking at it is as an instructor. When I think about my own students and you try to have an influence. And you think about – you hear the stories about Howard Thurman when he was teaching and having a meeting with the young Martin Luther King who was like 20-21 when he met with him in Boston to talk to him about his work. Or meeting with the young James Farmer and that influence. You know, there’s a clip that I use in the Great Lives Lecture. It’s an interview with James Farmer where Farmer talks about Thurman telling him, “Get every book you can get on Gandhi. You’ve got to read anything you can about Gandhi and nonviolence because this is really the message. This is what’s going to lead you.”
And Farmer, in that interview, says, “So, then I was 21 at the time. I wrote a few memos. I had some ideas. We started meeting. And we started working on the idea of an organization.” And that organization became CORE. And to see how that idea that can spur a movement is very inspiring.
Stephanie: Yeah. As we’ve seen, Satyagraha in South Africa as well as the autobiography, The Experiments, just those two books really will take you through step-by-step-by-step. You know, the tactics, the thought process, when he brings in media, when he decides not to bring in media. I mean just the strategy, the whole thing is – it is all in there and it is quite amazing.
Anand: I’ve really enjoyed geeking out on this. There’s just so much more to dig into and to learn. And I think that, for me, the next step is to really – I want to find out a little bit more and get to the archives and dig deeper on Farmer and that connection, especially with Thurman because there’s so much there. And the connection between Farmer’s [sic] (King’s) father and Thurman was also another interesting tangent to think about how their close friendship and the way that they inspired one another was really interesting too.
Gandhi: There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses. But it is possible to reason out the existence of God to a limited extent.
Even in ordinary affairs we know that people do not know who rules or why and how He rules and yet they know that there is a power that certainly rules. In my tour last year in Mysore I met many poor villagers and I found upon inquiry that they did not know who ruled Mysore. They simply said some God ruled it. If the knowledge of these poor people was so limited about their ruler I who am infinitely lesser in respect to God than they to their ruler need not be surprised if I do not realize the presence of God – the King of Kings.
Nevertheless, I do feel, as the poor villagers felt about Mysore, that there is orderliness in the universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings. And thanks to the marvelous researches of Sir J. C. Bose it can now be proved that even matter is life. That law then which governs all life is God. Law and the law-giver are one. I may not deny the law or the law-giver because I know so little about it or Him. Just as my denial or ignorance of the existence of an earthly power will avail me nothing even so my denial of God and His law will not liberate me from its operation, whereas humble and mute acceptance of divine authority makes life’s journey easier even as the acceptance of earthly rule makes life under it easier.
I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever-changing, ever dying there is underlying all that change, a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. That informing power of spirit is God, and since nothing else that I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is. And is this power benevolent or malevolent ? I see it as purely benevolent, for I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, light. He is love. He is the supreme Good.
But He is no God who merely satisfies the intellect, if He ever does. God to be God must rule the heart and transform it. He must express himself in every smallest act of His votary. This can only be done through a definite realization, more real than the five senses can ever produce. Sense perceptions can be and often are false and deceptive, however real they may appear to us. Where there is realization outside the senses it is infallible.
It is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within. Such testimony is to be found in the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes. To reject this evidence is to deny oneself. This realization is preceded by an immovable faith.
He who would in his own person test the fact of God’s presence can do so by a living faith and since faith itself cannot be proved by extraneous evidence the safest course is to believe in the moral government of the world and therefore in the supremacy of the moral law, the law of truth and love. Exercise of faith will be the safest where there is a clear determination summarily to reject all that is contrary to truth and love. I confess that I have no argument to convince through reason. Faith transcends reason. All that I can advise is not to attempt the impossible.”
Stephanie: You’re at Nonviolence Radio. I’m Stephanie Van Hook and you’ve been listening to our interview with P. Anand Rao from the University of Mary Washington about the connections of Mahatma Gandhi with the American civil rights movement.
You’ve also been listening to excerpts of talks by civil rights movement leader James Farmer about some of the beginnings and roots of the American civil rights movement and Gandhi’s influence on it directly.
Want to give a shoutout to the James Farmer Project at the University of Mary Washington, especially the students who helped put that archive together. They’re Colin Biddle, Laura Gumkowski, Mary Hester, and Nicole Wellman.
Music by Bernice Johnson Reagon & Vocal Group – “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”.
Transcript and sound design by Matthew Watrous.