After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, visited India in 1959, King wrote about the trip for Ebony:
“We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism.”
It is well known that King was influenced by the nonviolent teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the leader of India’s struggle against British rule.
Yet for members of the Saturday Free School, held at a North Philadelphia church, it is just as relevant that Gandhi was influenced by his years living in South Africa, where he experienced the same kind of racism that black Americans experienced in the United States under “Jim Crow.”
“W.E.B. DuBois puts it in a very eloquent way," said Anthony Monteiro, a former Temple University professor who founded the Saturday Free School at the Church of the Advocate. "It is Africa that is the foundation upon which Gandhi and his movement grew. It grew from the soil of Africa.”
This weekend, the Saturday Free School will launch its “Year of Gandhi” celebration in honor of what would be Gandhi’s 150th birthday.
Throughout the year, the Free School will explore the relationship between the African American struggle for freedom and civil rights and the Indian struggle against colonial rule. From 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, there will be a screening of Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi. On Saturday, a daylong program of panel discussions and music will take place.
“We are trying to build ideas that people can take and turn into action,” said Nandita Chaturvedi, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Pennsylvania. She will take part in a discussion on Hinduism, black Christianity, and Islam, and how religion affected the political movements of leaders such as Gandhi, King, and the theologian Howard Thurman.
The overall goal of the Saturday Free School is “peaceful revolution," she said. “We are a study group for liberation."
Last year, the Free School celebrated a “Year of DuBois” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the civil rights activist and author. It was during one of the programs examining his writings about Gandhi and world peace that members decided on this year’s theme.
Decades before King embraced Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, several prominent black theologians and university presidents visited India and met with Gandhi. Among them were Thurman, a Morehouse College classmate of King’s father, and his wife, musician Sue Bailey Thurman; Benjamin Mays, then president of Morehouse College; and Mordecai Johnson, the first black president of Howard University. (King heard Johnson give a speech about Gandhi and nonviolence at the now-demolished Fellowship House in North Philadelphia, Monteiro said.)
There is also a long tradition of black American musicians visiting India, among them Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and Alice Coltrane. Among the first black artists to travel there were the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1890, whose Negro spirituals reportedly left the audience spellbound.
Yet in recent years, the relationship among Africans, African Americans, and Indians has suffered.
Last December, a two-year-old statue of Gandhi was removed from its pedestal at the University of Ghana in Accra following a #GandhiMustFall movement, a campaign based on comments he made while living in South Africa in the 1900s, when he referred to some South Africans as kaffirs, a derogatory term in South Africa similar to the N-word here.
Archisman Raju, a member of the Free School, said that when Gandhi first moved to South Africa in 1893, he had earned a law degree in London and considered himself a British citizen. He thought of Indians as superior to black South Africans.
“He made some remarks, the kind of deleterious remarks which accepted the division of the races as the British Empire had,” said Raju, who recently earned his doctorate in physics at Cornell University.
But after the Zulu Rebellion of 1906, Gandhi saw the South African army’s mistreatment of black prisoners, Raju said: “He saw them whipped and beaten, and they had wounds that went untreated.”
This changed Gandhi’s attitude, he said. “That was one of the earliest stages of transformation, from the racist views he learned in London" to becoming Mahatma, or "Great Soul.”
Still, most Indians — here and in India — aren’t aware of the deep ties linking India and black Americans "politically as well as culturally,” said Divya Nair, a doctoral student in English at Penn.
“A great deal has been done to sever India’s ancient and modern ties to Africa and African Americans in order to assimilate Indians, particularly in the West," Nair said. "White supremacy is incentivized for immigrants. We are taught to become white. “