Protesters throughout this Arab Spring have been inspired by the legacy of the American civil rights movement. Nico Slate, author of the forthcoming Colored Cosmopolitanism (Harvard University Press), explains below how this transnational affinity echoes that of an earlier era, a hidden history of bonds of sympathy and solidarity forged between African Americans and Indians during their freedom struggles of the late nineteenth century through the 1960s.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard University Press blog.
A 50-year-old comic book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to nonviolent resistance has been translated into Arabic and has been circulating amongst protesters in Egypt and throughout the Middle East for months. According to a recent article by CNN, the cartoon is only one manifestation of a broad interest in the civil rights movement amongst today’s nonviolent activists. The comic book in question, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, itself documents an older link between the civil rights movement and freedom struggles throughout the world. The comic book, which can be found here, traces King’s leadership back to the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi in India.
As I detail in my forthcoming book, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, connections between Indian and African American freedom struggles go well beyond the relationship between Gandhi and King. The comic book was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that by the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been working for decades to translate Gandhian methods for use in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. FOR helped organize the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that launched sit-ins modeled on Gandhian protest in the early 1940s and later pioneered the freedom rides. Many civil rights activists—some now famous and others largely forgotten—turned to Gandhi for inspiration and ideas.
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, two young Black women were arrested on a bus near Petersburg, Virginia. Like Parks, both women were already actively engaged in the struggle for racial equality. By the time they boarded an old bus bound for Durham, North Carolina in late March 1940, Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean had long discussed how they could most effectively challenge racial segregation. The poor condition of their bus gave them the opportunity to translate their thoughts into action. Seated near the back of the bus, directly over a wheel, the two young women suffered with every bump. When McBean began to feel a sharp pain in her side, she and Murray occupied seats in the middle of the bus. The driver told them to move back. They refused and, after a lengthy debate with the driver and local police officers, were arrested. Murray wrote friends soon after her arrest, “We did not plan our arrest intentionally. The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of Satyagraha on the spot.”
Gandhi used the word satyagraha, combining the Sanskrit for “truth” and “holding firm,” to refer to his particular approach to nonviolent civil disobedience. In her memoirs, Murray remembered that when she and McBean were arrested their knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and they had “no experience in the Gandhian method.” Like Murray, many Americans would learn the “Gandhian method” in the process of applying it against racial injustice. Less a rigid system than a series of guiding principles and a source of inspiration, Gandhian satyagraha would be reinvented in restaurants, department stores, buses and jails throughout the United States.
Connections between South Asians and African Americans extended beyond nonviolence, as Manning Marable’s new book on Malcolm X makes clear. Marable’s work demonstrates the breadth of linkages between African American Muslims and global Islam. Colored Cosmopolitanism reveals that such linkages were part of a larger constellation of connections in which nonviolent activists, Black and South Asian Muslims, Hindu reformers, Christian missionaries, followers of Marcus Garvey, African American soldiers, Indian immigrants, labor organizers, and many others forged links across freedom struggles. What provided coherence to these multifaceted linkages? I argue that a transnational conception of color came to serve as a bridge between people struggling against racism throughout the world. African Americans and South Asians together imagined a colored cosmopolitanism, a “dark” or “colored” world united in the struggle against racism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Advocates of colored cosmopolitanism fought for the freedom of the “colored world” even while calling into question the meanings of both color and freedom.
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman's Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence, forthcoming from Beacon Press, and Proud Shoes, Pauli Murray's book about her grandparents' lives in the pre-Civil War and Reconstruction era in the South.