A man of principles


A man of principles

When Barack Obama visited Raj Ghat in Delhi during his trip to India, he brought with him a white stone from the Martin Luther King Jr memorial in Washington DC, USA. It was symbolic of the fact that both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr lived and died for establishing equal rights and non-violence.

During the 1950s, in the United States, there were laws that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities called the Jim Crow laws that enforced supposedly ‘separate but equal’ status for black Americans, and this led to many protests. In December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, following the Rosa Parks incident, Martin Luther King Jr helped organise and lead the boycott of buses by African-Americans that saw the repeal of laws mandating racial segregation in public buses. King’s home was bombed following this on January 30, 1956, and he was arrested and jailed on several occasions.

Meanwhile, King had read several books on Mahatma Gandhi and was inspired by his success with non-violent activism. He visited India in 1959 and went to Gandhiji’s birthplace. This trip influenced him so profoundly that in a radio address on the last day of his visit, he said, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”

Back again in America, King organised and led marches for black Americans’ right to vote, desegregation, labour rights and other basic civil rights. On August 26, 1963, he led a march in Washington and gave a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, best remembered as the ‘I have a Dream’ speech. He spoke of the ‘fierce urgency of now’ as opposed to ‘the tranquilising drug of gradualism’, and said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” While advocating protests he said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” And he proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The success of this march and King’s speech ensured civil rights became the number one priority of the then government and facilitated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1964, at the age of 35, he became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Martin Luther King Jr didn’t just protest for fair laws for blacks, he protested for restoration of equality to people of all races. Once when a motel owner in front of whom he was protesting segregation asked him what he wanted, he simply said, “I want my dignity.” He wanted universal brotherhood when he proclaimed, “All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” These words resonate even today when we think about the injustices meted out to women. This is the core truth of altruism.

Through his life and work, Martin Luther King Jr nurtured the American Civil Rights movement that succeeded to such an extent that there is now a black man as the President of the United States. He inspired South Africa’s struggle to shake off apartheid.

It is indeed strange that most Indians don’t know this man who didn’t just stop with garlanding his statues and raising a couple of slogans, who didn’t just pay lip-service to Gandhiji’s principles, but took them to be his moral compass. Though ages apart, these two men  beat the strength and power of brutality with two simple truths — human dignity and non-violence.
 Martin Luther King Jr never personally met the Mahatma, but he was influenced so profoundly by his principles that he was not afraid to die for them. 

Through this man’s life, it becomes obvious that Gandhiji may have been born Indian but lived to be a citizen of the world, shedding a beacon of light for ages to come and future generations to follow.

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