Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

African-American Encounters

African-American Encounters with Indian Nationalists and the Gandhian Nonviolent Movement
by Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD

Description, Aims and Objectives, Timeline

This project began while I was a Rockefeller Fellow at Emory University 2000. I was back in Atlanta in May to make a pictorial presentation in a session dedicated to the exploration of this encounter, at the historic Spelman and Moorehouse Colleges, themselves sites where Indian nationalists and Gandhians had been visiting and holding dialogues with Black leaders and preachers since the early decades of the last century. I was excited to learn there is a rich archival collection which awaits through scanning. I intend to work further unearthing material, illustrations, newspaper clippings, private correspondence, testimonies, and so on, to embellish the many details and gaps in the growing story.

There are a good number of scholars and activist-faculty in the combined Black colleges and institutions in Atlanta who I was not able to involve in my project from the safer distance in Emory. I have come to realize that a researcher in this area needs to be situated in the Black intellectual environment to make the fruitful connections and further capture the dialogic process that led to the creation of leaders such Martin Luther King Jr (whose tribute to the Gandhis is now a legion). I am endeavoring to reconstruct the contributions to this emergence and the continuing spirit now celebrated all over north America (and occasionally in India) of nonviolence strategies towards achieving social justice by going back to the dedicated lives and teachings of stalwarts like W E B DuBois, Marcus Garvey, John Haynes Holmes, Har Dayal, Taraknath Das, Haridas Mazumdar, Lala Rajpat Rai, Basant Kumar Roy, Vitthalbai Patel, Manilal Parikh, Sarojini Naidu, Lohia, Tagore, Mira Behn, C F Andrews, R R Diwakar, King Jr himself, Andrew Young, Sudarshan Kapur, Vincent Harding, and many others to this day.

Detailed Description

During my year-long professorial visit and stay in Emory University in Atlanta (1999-2000) I commenced working on a Public Scholarship Program of bringing into the academe a certain kind of knowledge that exists, as it were out there in the public, and to interact this knowledge with scholarly learning to produce a new form of social thought that enhances both the university and a community’s self-understanding. I embarked on a project to deepen explorations already made in some preliminary ways on the rich tapestry of the connections, stretching over almost a century, between Gandhi”s teachings, particularly on ‘soul force’ (satyagraha) and’ nonviolent resistance (ahimsadharna), and the fledgling positioning within the African-American community toward a struggle for greater freedom, rights, and recognition of their presence as bona fide citizens of the United States. My research led me to the community, to libraries and archives such as the Auburn Street-Atlanta Library, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, Emory Archives, each specializing in collections on the Black civil rights and freedom struggle movements. I also had the privilege of participating in a number of focused events, such as A Season for Nonviolence’, a public awareness campaign coordinated by a network of eight reconciliation and ‘Kingandhian’ nonviolence fellowships across the country. The high point of the Season occurred over the Spiritual Awareness Week in March-April (2000) with a spectacular ceremony conferring honorary degrees posthumously for Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturbai Gandhi at Morehouse College, among the leading Black colleges in the U.S. with which Martin Luther King Jr’s name is also associated. This grand occasion was marked also by the unveiling of the bronze busts of these two fresh ‘Drs’ of Morehouse Graduate Alumni.

I have been collecting images and recordings from these and earlier such events, working backwards through the rich historical resources that I have been discovering, and also developing an interactive visual and textual narrative. The CD-ROM and on-line media publication that I envisage will be useful not only as a scholarly study of the unique connections I and other scholars before me have been uncovering, but also as an informative teaching tool and general public knowledge on the importance of such encounters in the history of the African American people, their plight, and their acclaimed achievements in the social and moral spheres. How exactly they have addressed the questions of ‘evil’, ‘violence’ and ‘suffering’, and the extent to which their major leaders (such as W E B Du Bois, Howard Thurman, Randolph, Vincent Harding, Rev Andrew Young, and King 3r himself) had been influenced by the thinking and practices of Gandhi back in South Africa and later in the Indian subcontinent, are issues that ought to be part of the reflections in Comparative Philosophy of Religion, although we do not find this to be the case. I intend to help rectify this situation by at least making this study interesting and available.

To that end, then, I wish to continue to embellish my collection of pictorial images, clippings, private correspondence, and speeches, to complete the growing account of the distinctive impact of Gandhians since 1905 on African American preachers, leaders, scholars, writers, and civil rights activists who bursts upon the public scene in the U.S. since the bus boycotts in the South against segregation practices and laws, during the mid-1950’s and 1960’s. This will bring to light another dimension and the much longer Gandhian connection in the ideology and movement that helped forge a nonviolent ‘Black’ self-consciousness in the U.S than it is hitherto recognized.

I have made presentations (as Rockefeller Fellow in Emory and subsequently) to various institutions on invitation, based on the preliminary visual narrative that I have compiled. The response has been exceedingly positive. I wish to continue to make these presentations so that I can also learn from local personalities with memories of the struggle period and their own amazing personal encounters. Such folks often turn up unexpectedly. For instance, at one such presentation in North Carolina State University, one Dr James Hunt was present, whom I had corresponded with over a decade ago (he since took retirement), but he is the world expert on Gandhi’s time in South Africa, and he shared his collection of images from his own research in South Africa (as I was not able to obtain permission to enter there for research until recently).

On the applied context in the field studies from Project #2, this deep connection also helps to mend another blind spot within ‘deep Orientalism’ and hopefully break the silence in Comparative Philosophy of Religion that largely ignores this aspect of the growth of modern spirituality, or alternative forms of spiritually-informed resistance to the wrongs faced by a particular community or group of people. In order to complete this project I need to spend time researching sources, again, in the Eastern seaboard region (since I have covered much of the south-east). There are rich resources in Columbia University library and African American Research/Study Centers scattered in other universities (such as the Du Bois Center in Harvard) that I need to visit and collect material from these sources.


Fall Semester (beginning August) 2002.