As Director of the Gandhi Memorial Center in Washington D.C., I was honored to participate in a special event at the Embassy of India "Confluence of Thought: Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." on August 24, 2011. This event brought people together to commemorate the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in the U.S. capitol.
Gandhi and King -
As the United States prepares to commemorate the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. let us reflect on the confluence of spirit of two great men:
Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These two great souls dedicated themselves to twin ideals: service and love. Both read and studied, meditated and prayed that they would find a course of action worthy of the ideals they sought…of justice, peace and human dignity.
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. never had the opportunity to meet Mahatma Gandhi, mentors during his student years certainly impressed upon the young man the value of Gandhiji’s experiments with truth. While a student at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King, Jr. was introduced to the work of Mahatma Gandhi by then college President Benjamin Mays. As a seminarian, King heard a sermon by Mordecai Johnson at Fellowship House in Philadelphia that so inspired him, it is said that he immediately went out and bought six books on Gandhi. King continued to be enlightened by Gandhi’s achievements when he was a doctoral student at Boston University by another man who had a deep influence him, Howard Thurman. Both Mays and Thurman met Gandhi in India in 1936.
Gandhi and King committed themselves to the ideal of Satyagraha, the path of Truth-force or Soul-force which initially shaped Gandhiji’s efforts in South Africa; and to the ideal of Ahimsa, which Gandhiji expressed not only as non-violence but love.
In this path of Satyagraha and Ahimsa, both men emphasized that the means must justify the ends and not the reverse. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
And Mahatma Gandhi has written that:
“They say, 'means are after all means.' I would say, 'means are after all everything.' As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between the means and the end. Indeed the Creator has given us control (and that too very limited) over means, none over the end … It is not given to man to know the whole Truth. His duty lies in living up to the Truth as he sees it and in doing so to resort to the purest means, i.e. to non-violence."
And yet, nonviolence was not merely a strategy for these two great men…it was the life worth living. “My life is my message,” Gandhiji claimed and he said, “For me nonviolence is not a mere philosophical principle. It is the rule and breath of my life.”
Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.” (quote from Feb 1968 Ebenezer Baptist Church)