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The Power Of Nonviolence History Essay

This investigation will evaluate the extent to which Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolence tactics during the Civil Rights Movement. In order to fully assess the magnitude of Gandhi’s influence on King, this examination will explore different examples of King and Gandhi employing their nonviolent tactics in order to achieve social reform, mainly focusing on the Montgomery Boycott and the Salt March. As well as an evaluation of King’s and Gandhi’s philosophies, which will seek to further evaluate the scope of Gandhi’s impact on King. The approach that King took towards Gandhi’s teachings will be examined as well.

The two sources chosen for evaluation, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence by Erik H. Erikson and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech of “The Power of Nonviolence”.

This investigation does not assess other Civil Rights activists whom might have been influenced by Gandhi, nor the extent of Gandhi’s teachings on the Civil Rights Movement itself.

B. Summary of Evidence

On March 12, 1930 Mahatma Gandhi embarked on a new journey to break the unjust Salt laws that the government of Great Britain had implemented on India. In order to ensure the monopoly of salt by the British, which was a greatly lavish commodity along the shores of India, these laws stated that no one was allowed to collect, sale or produce salt without the consent of the British government. This meant that the poor workmen who could not afford to buy the expensive British salt were forced to buy it. To this Gandhi responded by using “a new instrument of peaceful militancy” that would demonstrate the power of nonviolence as a means of achieving social reform. Gandhi then set out to use nonviolence tactics by marching from his home in Sabarmati Ashram down to Dandi, where he and thousands of others collected salt from the Arabian Sea (see fig. 1). The march took place from March 12, 1930 until April 5, 1930 and the participants marched a total of 241 miles. He and his Satyagrahi’s never took part in any violence and remained peaceful throughout, even when the government and the police responded with forceful beatings and stabbings. By garnering the attention of the world through his usage of nonviolence to promote a new social welfare, Gandhi was able to achieve his goal of getting the Salt Tax revoked. (Erikson)

What ignited the Montgomery Boycott was the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1st, 1955 for not giving up her seat for a white male (December). This would then lead to action, although hesitant at first, from Martin Luther King, Jr. (Frady 21). He would later go on to lead the nation of the US into a more equal and just society. In this event King, who greatly admired Gandhi and was an avid follower of his nonviolence teachings, employed nonviolent tactics and ordered a boycott of all buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott would last until November 13, 1956 and garner national media attention (December). The Montgomery Boycott provided King with the reassurance that love and nonviolence were the means for obtaining social reform, wherever and for whatever cause, backing up his belief in Gandhi and his inspirational teachings (Frady 35).

The four pillars of Gandhi’s philosophy consist of Truth, Nonviolence, Sarvodaya and Satyagraha. Gandhi believed in the ultimate truth not only with oneself but with one’s opponent. He sought after this absolute truth- or Ultimate Reality- and regarded God to be at the core of this truth. Gandhi viewed himself as a “practical idealist”, and that human beings are constantly undergoing gradual moral evolution. He sought after nonviolence in all of his life’s teachings, and believed that since the Divine Reality states that all life is one then any violence to another is violence to oneself, or the collective self. Therefore, he regarded violence to be self-destructive. Sarvodaya stands for “the welfare of all without any exception”, and Gandhi believed that in order to achieve this self-sacrifice was called for. He believed that by implementing these principles in everyday life one would ultimately undergo a self-transformation. Gandhi also believed Satyagraha, meaning “truth force”, to be the ultimate weapon against ones opponent. It is where one attempts to convert, or win over the opponent by applying forces of reason and consciousness. Gandhi did not believe in gloating or embarrassing ones opponents, and that in the end everybody was a winner for justice had reigned. (Murphy)

King’s philosophy was centered on loving ones opponent, despite their affiliations with bad deeds and sins. He believed in Agape Love, the greatest form of love there is, and essentially the love that God has for humans. This is where one will love another man simply because he is. One loves the person doing the evil deed but despises the evil deed being done. One of the main principles of his philosophy was the strong belief in nonviolent resistance as a weapon to achieve social justice. He believed the only way to bring this about change was to love the opponent. His philosophy was not to humiliate or defeat an opponent, but to achieve reconciliation and try to make him understand your side. King felt that at the end there should be redemption and friendship for the enemy. He also believed that a victory would be a victory not only for the winning party, but for justice, good will, and democracy. (King Speech)

During his early years, King struggled with his want of fighting the injustice brought onto the black race and his belief in the Christian way of life, where one loves their enemy and wishes them no harm. He was at a loss as to what he could do in order to make a difference and still fulfill his religious principles. It was not until he truly discovered Gandhi and his teachings that King found the answer to his dilemma. Although King had known of Gandhi most of his life, it was not until a certain Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania that he became personally fixated on Gandhi. After this seminary King sought more on Gandhi and his philosophy on nonviolence, eventually immersing himself in all that was Gandhi and undertaking the task of fully understanding this Indian leader and his philosophy. He became fascinated with the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, his “skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished” and he eventually saw the power of civil disobedience in achieving grand social reform. (Blakely)

C. Evaluation of Sources

Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origin of Militant Nonviolence, written by Erik H. Erikson, tells the story of Mahatma Gandhi from his period of birth to his tragic death. Erikson was an American professor of history who took a trip to India in order to fulfill his research requirements to write this book. Through this book the author attempts to tell the story of Gandhi’s life in a way others have not seen before.

Erikson provides a unique perspective in that he traces the growth of little ‘Monia’ into the Mahatma Gandhi the world knows, allowing the reader to get to know Gandhi better, both as a person and as a leader of men. Erikson includes many primary sources, such as personal letters written by Gandhi and to Gandhi, close friends and acquaintances of Gandhi, and even the Vice President of India in 1969, but his book itself is a secondary source which makes the facts less credible. Some limitations include the fact that Erikson’s bias and fixations are prevalent throughout the book. One particular fixation of his is on the British Empire, where Erikson agrees with Gandhi’s early support of the Empire and states that the only harm India experienced on behalf of the Empire was a loss of identity brought on by a mass cultural assault. Even with much bias present, the book itself provides great coverage on Gandhi’s life and his nonviolence theories.

“The Power of Nonviolence” speech was written by Martin Luther King, Jr. on June 4th, 1957 for a public audience in order to inform them of his intentions. King was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and garnered so much popularity that he turned an otherwise unknown issue into a national issue with broad media coverage. He revolutionized the Civil Rights Movement, especially with his contributions of nonviolent tactics in order to achieve social reform. This source is extremely valuable as it is a primary source, written by King himself which provides insight into the mind of this awe inspiring leader. Limitations include bias on behalf of King for it is a speech on his own philosophy of nonviolence, as well as the fact that King wrote it with a massive audience in mind and took into consideration their level of interest.

D. Analysis

Gandhi’s influence on King helped to solve his moral dilemma, and he even mentioned himself that “after reading Gandhi [he] saw how utterly mistaken [he] was” and was finally able to discover the social reform he had been seeking (Blakely). King felt so inspired by Gandhi’s ways that he implemented his teachings in his first ever boycott, the Montgomery Boycott. It was this boycott that acted as the catalyst for King’s “self-transformation” into the world of nonviolence as his way of life. Soon after, the Gandhian idea of the “Beloved Community” or the “Ultimate Reality”, became the central goal of King’s campaign and with this the Civil Rights Movement was born (Blakely). Under Gandhi’s words of wisdom the Civil Rights Movement achieved nonviolence without being passive, and it was with the success of this boycott that Gandhi’s peaceful ways showed King that there was a method for nonviolent resistance towards the state. For King the Movement embodied a “reflection and effort on our part to imitate Gandhi's Salt March to the sea. Our teachings, the methods that we used all came from the life and the spirit of Mohandas Gandhi” (Blakely). King followed Gandhi’s approach during the boycott, as well as the rest of the Movement by facing it with peace, love and nonviolence as Gandhi did with the Salt March. As Gandhi had done before him, King took advantage of his opponent’s vicious ways and reacted to the event by forming mass groups that never responded in a violent manner. Even when the opponent retaliated with force, King followed Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha until the very end.

One could also argue that it was not only Gandhi that influenced King on developing his ideas. They could say that “Daddy King” and his sermons on racial harmony played a determining role, or that Thoreau and his essay on “Civil Disobedience” was a crucial factor, or that Jesus alone shaped his whole outlook (Blakely); and they would not be completely wrong. All of them helped to build and fortify King’s philosophy, but it was Gandhi who ultimately showed King that there was an actual method for mass nonviolent resistance. It was Gandhi who helped King find his way out of his moral dilemma, and take a step forward in leading a mass movement that would change the course of the world.

E. Conclusion

Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolence reverberate throughout King’s whole outlook on life. Not only did Gandhi manage to teach King the ultimate form of peaceful retaliation through Satyagraha, he also transformed King’s perspective on violence as being the only means towards achieving change. Before Gandhi, King believed that only violence could make a difference when it came to attaining a lasting effect in the name of justice. After he became acquainted with Gandhi’s teachings the only answer King saw then was non-violence. Gandhi not only influenced King on a personal level, but on a spiritual level as well. It is because of this that King dedicated his heart and soul towards implementing nonviolence throughout the Movement, and like Gandhi he gave the ultimate self-sacrifice—his life.

Route Map of Dandi March

Fig. 2. Map of the Dandi March route from nd.; “Route Map of Dandi March”; Compare Infobase Limited; MapsOfIndia.com, 25 Apr. 2012; Web; 18 Aug. 2012.


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