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 Nonviolence, available 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.