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Ali: King And Ghandi

01/19/12 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(Host) This week, as we observe the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali has been thinking about how nonviolent protest in the twentieth century was learned - across cultures.

(Ali) I recently had an opportunity to visit the neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King grew up in Atlanta , Georgia . A tranquil pool greets visitors to the King C enter which is crowned with the sarcophagus containing the remains of Dr King and his beloved wife Coretta Scott King. Along one side of the complex is a pavement full of memorial plaques, with footprints of some of the great civil rights activists who assisted Dr King.

Near the entrance , there is a bronze statue of a foreigner - Mohandas Kamarchand Gandhi - a man whom Dr King credited as an inspiration for his practice of nonviolent activism. The statue was donated by the Indian embassy but it is clearly well-placed in this memorial.

Beside Gandhi's statue is a quotation by Albert Einstein in memory of Gandhi, which still rings true: "generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." And even though the two icons of nonviolence never met each other, Dr King made a special visit to India in 1959 to learn about Gandhi 's nonviolent techniques of civil disobedience.

Some revisionist historians claim that the fall of the British Empire was more likely caused by the crumbling of resources following World War II than by Gandhi's struggle, but its impact on Dr King and the American Civil Rights Movement can never be underplayed. It was because of his strategy of nonviolence that Dr. King was able to garner so much support and ultimately prevail. Resorting to other violent means would have perpetuated the struggle by marginalizing activists as "terrorists".

This struggle between strategies was clearly evident in other aspects of the American Civil Rights movement as well. In contrast to Dr King, leaders such as Malcolm X initially advocated more violent means to reach their goals. Malcolm X started out as a member of the misnomered Nation of Islam, but subsequently converted to mainstream Islam. It's interesting to note that his pilgrimage to Mecca was a transformational experience as it moderated his views from violence to nonviolence and from prejudice to egalitarianism. The same faith that is so often stereotyped today as the source of violence was in fact what catalyzed peace in Malcom X.

The story of the Civil Rights movement is thus one of cross-cultural learning and a quest for equality and rights that can be derived from East and West alike. It is a story that continued a few decades later back at the mother continent of Africa where Nelson Mandela languished in prison for 18 years. When asked about how he survived Mandela said simply - "I always remembered that my captors were also human."


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