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When Howard Thurman Met Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement

By Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt

Howard Thurman  Portrait_Gandhi

In 1935, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India that would forever change him—and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States. When Thurman became the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, he found himself called upon to create a new version of American Christianity, one that eschewed self-imposed racial and religious boundaries, and equipped itself to confront the enormous social injustices that plagued the United States during this period. Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or “soul force,” would have a momentous impact on Thurman, showing him the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. After the journey to India, Thurman’s distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi’s prescient words that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Today, on the 145th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, we look back to that meeting in 1935, when the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience passed from India’s spiritual leader to the man who would deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers and civil rights leaders—among them Martin Luther King Jr.

Excerpted from Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman's Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolenceavailable soon in paperback.

The conversation then turned, in the words of Desai, to “the main thing that had drawn the distinguished members to Gandhiji,” his philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (civil disobedience campaigns). “Is non-violence from your point of view a form of direct action?” Thurman asked. “It is not one form,” Gandhi replied, “it is the only form.” Nonviolence, Gandhi said, does not exist without an active expression of it, and indeed, “one cannot be passively nonviolent.” Gandhi went on to lament that the term had been widely misunderstood. Ahimsa was a Sanskrit word with deep resonance in all of South Asia’s ancient karmic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, and (especially) Jainism, in which ahimsa stood for a commitment to refrain from harming living things. He felt there was no good English language equivalent for ahimsa, so he created the term nonviolence (the earliest usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, citing Gandhi, is from 1920), but told Thurman that he regretted the fact that his coinage started with the “negative particle ‘non.’ ” On the contrary, Gandhi insisted nonviolence was “a force which is more positive than electricity” and subtler and more pervasive than the ether.

Gandhi went on to expound his theory of nonviolence to the delegation. “We are surrounded in life by strife and bloodshed, life living upon life.” But “some great seer [unnamed by Gandhi, perhaps Jesus or Buddha], who ages ago penetrated the centre of truth said: It was not through strife and violence, but through non-violence that man can fulfill his destiny and his duty to his fellow creatures.” He continued: “At the center of non-violence is a force which is self-acting.” “Ahimsa,” Gandhi told the visiting Christians, meant “ ‘love’ in the Pauline sense, yet something more,” presumably referring to the famous passage in 1 Corinthians, “Faith, hope, and love abides, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” (Although the passage Gandhi referred to was Thurman’s favorite passage from the corpus of the Pauline epistles, the two men agreed that the religion of Paul was a fateful detour from the authentic religion of Jesus. Gandhi had written in 1928, “I draw a great distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the Letters of Paul. They are a graft on Christ’s teaching, his own gloss apart from Christ’s experience.”)

Dixie_VisionsofaBetterWorldBut love, even in its Pauline sense, was liable to be too easily misunderstood, either as too narrowly focused on a love of God, or, more troubling to Gandhi with his profoundly puritanical attitudes toward sexuality, almost impossible to purge of its connotations of carnality. So, Gandhi concluded, he was forced to define ahimsa negatively: “But it does not express a negative force, but a force superior to all the forces put together. One person who can express Ahimsa in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality.”

For Gandhi nonviolence was not really an idea at all. It was, as he told the delegation repeatedly, a force, a physical reality, a metaphysical substrate that underlined and defined all reality, the deeper truth behind the dross and flux of the world, the truth beneath and beyond the seeming brutality that apparently confined both human life and the world of nature to endless cycles of gratuitous violence. It was a force that individuals could accumulate and concentrate. Ahimsa was a force, as Gandhi indicated, “the force,” in the constitution of the universe.

Thurman, always at his religious core a nature mystic, a romantic vitalist in the mode of Olive Schreiner, was very sympathetic to Gandhi’s broader point that the ultimate truth, whether it was labeled God or ahimsa, was at once natural and supernatural, profoundly alive but not limited to any specific living thing. “If the source of life is alive, then it follows that life itself is alive,” Thurman would write, somewhat cryptically but characteristically, in 1944. What he meant by this was that there was an underlying moral order in the universe. “The cosmos is the kind of order that sustains and supports the demands that the relationships between men and between man and God be one of harmony [and] integration.” Gandhi’s ahimsa was a close relative of Thurman’s increasingly unconventional notion of God.

As the conversation continued, Gandhi and Thurman, discovering their deep religious affinities, continued to discuss the metaphysics of nonviolence. Worldly possessions, Gandhi told Thurman, stood in the way of mastery of ahimsa: “It possesses nothing, therefore it possesses everything.” And Gandhi explained another paradox: while ahimsa was completely egalitarian, open to all—“if there was any exclusiveness about it, I should reject it at once”—because of the difficulty of the path, mastery was granted to few. Thurman’s question of whether it was possible for a single human being to embody ahimsa provoked the following dialogue:

GANDHI: It is possible. Perhaps your question is more universal than you mean. Isn’t it possible, you mean to ask, for one single Indian for instance to resist the exploitation of 300 million Indians? Or do you mean the onslaught of the whole world against a single individual personally?

THURMAN: Yes, that is one half of the question. I wanted to know if one man can hold the whole violence at bay?

GANDHI: If he cannot, you must take it that he is not a true representative of Ahimsa.

Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman on the Pilgrimage of Friendship
Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman on the Pilgrimage of Friendship

The conversation had turned to one of the peculiarities of Gandhian nonviolence. As in many spiritual practices, there was a combination of great humility and unbounded arrogance in Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa. For it was Gandhi’s profound belief that all it required was one person, one who truly mastered nonviolence, to end British imperialism and that such a person could embody and realize the hopes of hundreds of millions of people. Needless to say, Gandhi thought he might be that person, and he came very close to realizing this goal. A major reason for his frequent fasts was his belief that through his asceticism he would become a stronger vessel of ahimsa. Judith Brown has written of the 1924 fast he undertook after an outbreak of Muslim-Hindu rioting. “He blamed himself for the violence around him, believing that if he had been perfectly non-violent this would not have happened. . . . He was convinced that the soul’s strength grew in proportion to that which a man disciplined his flesh.” Gandhi was of course a canny manipulator of the press and a very shrewd politician, but an underlying motivation for nearly all of his actions was the accumulation of soul force.

For Gandhi, satyagraha was at its core a careful, personal spiritual discipline. One individual’s commitment to ahimsa could change a continent because it could be shared and copied. But it would have to be imitated and emulated precisely or not at all. In a part of the conversation Thurman remembered but has no parallel in Desai’s transcription, Thurman asked Gandhi why the independence movement had so far failed in its efforts to rid the country of the British. Gandhi answered that the effectiveness of ahimsa “depends upon the degree to which the masses of people are able to embrace such a notion and have it become a working part of their total experience. It cannot be the unique property of the leaders; it has to be rooted in mass ascent and creative push.” Gandhi told him, Thurman would write, that when he “first began our movement it failed, and it will continue to fail until it is embraced by the masses of the people.”

Gandhi went on to say that the problem with the Indian masses is that they did not have enough “vitality” to embrace ahimsa, and Thurman records that “it struck me with a tremendous wallop that I had never associated ethics and morality with physical vitality. It was a new notion trying to penetrate my mind.” Gandhi went on to explain what he meant by vitality. First, it simply meant physical strength. The masses were hungry, and the pains in their stomachs and the need for survival made any attention to higher ideals impossible. And then it meant a sense of self-respect. This was why it was so important to redevelop native industries like weaving and improve agricultural resources so as not to rely on imported clothing or foodstuffs. Gandhi also told Thurman that the Indian masses had not lost their self-respect due to “the presence of the conqueror in our midst” but because of their toleration of injustices within, especially the institution of untouchability.

Gandhi’s notion of vitality, even if it hit Thurman with a “wallop,” was one, in a somewhat different guise, thoroughly familiar to him—namely, that oppression tends to rob people of their self-respect and their moral self-awareness, and that until this is repaired, those who seek to change this will find no adequate redress. So Thurman had argued in several works before coming to India, most importantly in “Good News for the Underprivileged.” There he asserted that continual fear of violence by those at the bottom of society “disorganizes the individual from within. It strikes continually at the basic ground of his self-estimate, and by so doing makes it impossible for him to live creatively and to function.”

As a consequence, both Thurman and Gandhi saw the impetus for movements for social change arising less from mass politics than from a handful of persons who had realized the proper techniques for self-mastery and could, by their example, show others the way.


Hear Beacon editor Amy Caldwell discuss 'Visions of a Better World'



Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt are two of the country’s leading experts on Howard Thurman. They are both senior volume editors of the Howard Thurman Papers Project and have extensive backgrounds in African American history and religious history. Dixie is assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. He holds MA and PhD degrees in religious studies and American church history, respectively, from Union Theological Seminary. He is coauthor, with Juan Williams, of This Far by Faith, and is coeditor, with Cornel West, of The Courage to Hope.