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King Holiday Honors Global Tradition of Non-Violence

Monday, January 15, is a national holiday in the United States honoring the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   He led the non-violent struggle in the 1950s and 1960s to promote civil rights and end racial segregation in America, until his murder in April 1968.

Today, Dr. King is hailed as a true American hero with whom almost all Americans are familiar. What many may not realize is that Dr. King's non-violent methods were largely inspired by a man who lived a continent and a generation away. He was Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi,  the statesman and sage who helped colonial India win independence from Britain in 1948.

Gandhi's own beginnings as a world leader occurred in what was an otherwise unremarkable experience for colonials. In 1893, as a young Indian lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi was ejected from the first class train seat he had paid for, and told to sit among the other non-whites in the third class compartment. It was a moment that would profoundly affect the world.

"It was the first time in his life that he had faced race prejudice," says David Cortright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and the author of Gandhi and Beyond.  "He was very upset, very angry. But as he thought about it, he realized that he had to fight this," says Cortright. But Gandhi did not believe in violence. "[He] recognized, early on, the self-defeating nature of violence, and how violence begets violence and there is a cycle of action and reaction and whenever we strike a blow the other person will strike back."

Gandhi set out to obtain justice for his fellow Indians outside that vicious cycle, through Satyagraha, a concept which roughly translates as "love force," or "the weight of truth." It is a simple, yet highly sophisticated method of non-violent political action. When, as a young man, King was exposed to Gandhi's teachings on Satyagraha, he was electrified by its potential to help the struggle for civil rights in America.

The two men shared important similarities. Like Gandhi, who was a Hindu, Dr. Martin Luther King, a Christian minister, based his political activism on his religion. Just as Gandhi's Hinduism teaches that all human beings, even one's enemies or oppressors, are an expression of the Divine, with no less value than oneself, Reverend King and his followers were inspired by Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" when your enemy strikes you, to pray for him, suffer for him, and ultimately, to forgive him.

"Dr. King used to say that 'we will match his ability to inflict suffering by our ability to suffer,'" says Andrew Young, the first African American ambassador to the United Nations, and one of King's closest friends and lieutenants. He spoke with VOA immediately after watching "Dare Not Walk Alone,"  a film documentary about the civil rights movement that includes footage from a non-violent demonstration he led in 1964 in Saint Augustine, Florida in which Young was badly beaten.

"There was a picture of a young woman with a broken nose. And she looks upon that beating as a mark of physical courage, as I do, that you were willing to confront evil and risk your life and not back down." After pausing for a moment to reflect, he continued, "The willingness to suffer for what you believe in is one of the highest virtues."

Gandhi and King keenly understood that the moral dignity of non-violent demonstrations as conveyed through the media could powerfully affect public opinion. Indeed, news photographs of police beating unarmed demonstrators, and crowds spitting on and taunting disciplined young people spread sympathy and support for both the Indian Independence movement and the civil rights movement.

Economic pressure through boycotts was another way that Dr. King's methods echoed those of Gandhi. "Every day we challenged the philosophy of racism in a way that stopped economic enterprise, at least temporarily," Andrew Young says, recalling the 90 days of demonstrations and boycotts against segregated department stores in downtown Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Young says they never "hit anybody, never cussed anybody out." But the boycott was effective. "The business community came to us after 100 days and said 'Look, this has got to stop because you are putting us out of business!'"

Young emphasizes a truth that may surprise those who mistakenly associate non-violence with passivity: "You are the aggressor in nonviolence in that you are defining the issue. You are starting the confrontation." 

Gandhi and King's methods have inspired political movements around the world. One thinks of the non-violent Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the national reconciliation efforts in post-Apartheid South Africa, and the Dalai Lama's efforts on behalf of Tibetans.

Robert Barnett, a professor of Contemporary Tibetan Studies at New York's Columbia University, notes that the Dalai Lama paid explicit tribute to Gandhi and his nonviolent methods when he accepted his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.  "And he has talked quite a lot about wanting to understand why the Chinese people felt the way they did when China took over, and going from there to say, 'We need to negotiate with these people and not to use violence against them.'"

Barnett adds that the Tibetan leader's approach has yet to succeed. "But the Dalai Lama's view is that this does take a long, long time and we need to be patient."

The universality of what Gandhi called "the force of truth and love" is why Andrew Young says Martin Luther King Day should not be regarded as only an African American holiday.

"Martin Luther King happened to be an Afro-American. But he advocated and successfully changed America and he never really lashed out in anger against anyone," Young says. The message there, he notes, is that "we ought to be celebrating and studying nonviolence as a continuing option for the growth and development of human civilization. Love!"

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