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Ashoka pays a personal tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., one of his teenage icons, on his 88th birthday, on Sunday (Jan 15). He was presented to the Indian people as a ‘Negro Gandhian’, who was propagating Gandhian ideology amongst the blacks in the United States. The writer says, “Like all impressionable teenagers of my generation, I also fantasised meeting with these great icons of teenage years. As it so happens, one of my life’s regrets has been that I could not manage to meet with any of these….When I moved trans-Atlantic it was important to establish contact with the King family. I considered myself very fortunate to have had a chance to spend a few hours with his daughter Bernice, herself a Baptist preacher and an ardent civil rights campaigner, when she came over to Philadelphia.” We, in Different Truths, pay our homage to the great leader, who influenced the people, globally.
The year nineteen hundred and sixty eight was unusual in more ways than one. The anti-Vietnam War protests were in full swing all over the world. Politics was in almost total turmoil. Lyndon Baines Johnson, despite his spectacular Civil Rights record was the new bogey man for the entire generation. There were two political murders in the United States that shook the world viz., that of Robert Kennedy in June and Martin Luther King Jr. a few months earlier. The world was caught up in a spate of uncertainty. And not to mention the ultimate irony; the musical chart was being topped by the great Louis Armstrong with his mellifluous “What a Wonderful World,” which still succeeds in giving my entire generation goose bumps!
But it was Martin Luther King’s killing that most of us in this part of the world are unlikely ever to forget. April 4, 1968! Most of us who heard the news on our radio sets would remember what we were doing at the moment and time when we heard the news!
My own generation had cultivated a set of icons. Bertrand Russell was one of them. His pronouncements had a profound resonance for reasons, which are very difficult to adumbrate. I remember how shattered I had felt when I came to know of his passing away, in 1970, at the age of 98. Che Guevara was another. Even those of us who did not fully concur with his ideology could not but admire him for his idealism and tenacity of purpose. Then, of course, there was Martin Luther King Jr.
I first came to know of him when he visited India and he was presented to the Indian people as a ‘Negro Gandhian’, who was propagating Gandhian ideology amongst the blacks in the United States. I personally have no memories of him being presented to the President of India at an official reception but did manage to peruse the snapshots much later. It is noteworthy that he was just 30 years old at the time and held no official position but he was accorded welcome befitting a head of state. It was much later I came to know that he had met Nehru during one of his visits to the US, who had personally asked the Chester Bowles, the US Ambassador to India at the time to facilitate his trip. Apart from Nehru, he managed to meet with Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan plus a number of other major political figures. He noted:
The Indian people love to listen to the Negro spirituals. Therefore, Coretta ended up singing as much as I lectured. We discovered that autograph seekers are not confined to America. After appearances in public meetings and while visiting villages we were often besieged for autographs. Even while riding planes, more than once pilots came into the cabin from the cockpit requesting our signatures.
The trip had a great impact upon me personally. It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land, to talk with his son, his grandsons, his cousin and other relatives; to share the reminiscences of his close comrades; to visit his ashrama, to see the countless memorials for him and finally to lay a wreath on his entombed ashes at Rajghat. I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvellous thing to see the amazing results of a non-violent campaign. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. Today, a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between the Indian and British people within the commonwealth. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.
Non-violent resistance does call for love, but it is not a sentimental love. It is a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on itself suffering. While I understand the reasons why oppressed people often turn to violence in their struggle for freedom, it is my firm belief that the crusade for independence and human dignity that is now reaching a climax in Africa will have a more positive effect on the world, if it is waged along the lines that were first demonstrated in that continent by Gandhi himself.
He returned more convinced than ever that it was Gandhian non-violence that offered the Afro-American real hope and redemption and he adhered to this principle throughout his life. In adopting Gandhi as his emulatory icon, he had to take on some orthodox members of the Baptist congregation; he was a Baptist preacher himself and a number of his fellow pastors took strong exception to him accepting the path shown by a non-Christian (let along a non-Baptist). Additionally he took on Malcolm X, a fellow civil rights crusader for whom emancipation of Afro-American was necessary ‘by any means possible’.
His biggest detractor, however, was J. Edgar Hoover, the long-standing director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who was not averse to using every dirty trick in the book to malign him.
The presidential elections were in full swing, in 1960, and Jack Kennedy the Democratic candidate asked him for an audience promising him that he would sign the Civil Rights Bill if he was elected. It is widely believed that it was King’s support that tilted the Afro-Americans in Kennedy’s favour ensuing a narrow victory over Richard Nixon.
Who can very forget the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which moves every sensitive individual even now more than 50 years after it was delivered. I remember listening to the sound-bytes on All India Radio. And as it happened, one of favourite chapters in my English literature textbooks was an excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stove. It was only after instructions and explanations from Mrs. E. King, my English teacher at St. Joseph’s Collegiate, Allahabad, did I realise the extent of the degrading humiliation that the Afro-Americans had to endure!
Haunted by the fictional Uncle Tom’s travails, I decided to read King’s books at the earliest possible opportunity. Stride Towards Freedom was the only one available in the College Library which I managed to read.
Like all impressionable teenagers of my generation, I also fantasised meeting with these great icons of teenage years. As it so happens, one of my life’s regrets has been that I could not manage to meet with any of these. However, one of my first trips on my arrival in the United Kingdom was to Bertrand Russel’s house. When I moved trans-Atlantic it was important to establish contact with the King family. I considered myself very fortunate to have had a chance to spend a few hours with his daughter Bernice,
herself a Baptist preacher and an ardent civil rights campaigner, when she came over to Philadelphia. And I did get an opportunity to visit Cuba soon afterwards, where I was able to gain valuable insights on Che Guevara.
My generation was deprived of the Mahatma’s personal presence as he had been assassinated before we were born. But King embodied almost everything that the Mahatma represented. Most of all, he never saw himself as a superhuman – only an ordinary human being with all the human failings but possessed of a ruthless fixity of purpose amalgamated with a steady dose of humanism. The entire humanity was diminished when he was so cruelly snatched away from us – the same manner in which the Mahatma was (although he was more than twice King’s age when he was killed). I object very strongly when he is referred to as a ‘black leader’, which diminishes not just him but all of us. His message is universal.
Let us salute him on his 88th birthday! And the most fitting tribute to him would be to ponder over some pearls of wisdom that he enriched all of us with:
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
And of course two of my favourites and most inspirational:
I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Photos from the internet.