Options for Teaching on Gandhi and King
by Fritz Blackwell
© 2001 by the Association for Asian Studies, Inc. – Materials may be reproduced for classroom use only.
This article is reprinted here with permission of the Association for Asian Studies, Inc.,
the publisher of Education About Asia (EAA). This article originally appeared in a
special section of Education About Asia, Vol. 6:3 (Winter 2001), a section that was
produced with the financial support of The Infinity Foundation.
Asia/History 470 – Gandhi, India and the United States – is a transformation of a 300-level course called Twentieth-Century India. Each course sustained its existence by meeting general requirements for students at Washington State University who were not majoring in history. In the earlier course students showed little interest in India since independence, especially in the politics. This was due in part to the drama of the independence movement, and with events thereafter seeming prosaic to students, most of whom had little, if any, previous exposure to India in either high school or college. I played up the excitement and historic significance of the movement and its colorful leaders, comparing them and their situation to the American Revolution.
But I was not satisfied with my efforts to teach about the nature and importance of Gandhi’s satyagraha (active nonviolent resistance) movement and particular events within it.1 The role of nonviolence as a positive force (rather than passive), central to satyagraha, was equally difficult to get across to students.2
When the video series “Eyes on the Prize”3 appeared, I recognized the possibility of using some of the tapes as examples for satyagraha.4 Indeed, particular satyagrahas and civil rights events can be compared; e.g., Vykom Satyagraha and Nashville lunch counter sit-ins; Salt Satyagraha and the Freedom Rides.
About that time or a little later, the university developed a concept of senior-level “capstone” courses, largely of a cross-cultural nature. The students had shown great interest in the tapes, and soon the American civil rights movement replaced India since independence in the course. It became quite popular, with enrollment virtually doubling. Indeed, I found myself grappling to keep the Indian element dominant. That is an important point for purposes of this article; I consider the American segment to be an outgrowth of the Indian and structure the course and choice of textbooks with that in mind.
The first part of the course deals with the Indian independence movement, albeit in a general way. The text I use here, Gandhi and India by Gianni Sofri,5 is general, well illustrated, and highly readable, and it provides an adequate pre-twentieth-century background. I do elaborate on it in class, however, especially with regard to Asoka’s almost pre-Gandhian policies; the book has some problems, but they are minor. I use films, both on the Indian independence movement and on imperialism. There is a wide range to chose from; one I feel to be essential is a twenty-five-minute collection of newsreel clips from the old CBS series “The Twentieth Century.” I use parts of the Richard Attenborough Academy-Award winner, Gandhi, especially the initial section on South Africa.6
The next section involves the theoretics of Gandhi’s satyagraha. First, I find a brief (but somewhat intense) introduction to central Hindu concepts necessary, specifically Advaita Vedanta (or “non-dualism”). I have developed my own rather succinct handout for that, not wishing to spend time on a detailed text. I also have a handout for the concepts of satyagraha, but that is not essential; what is essential is Joan Bondurant’s Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict,7 which provides a theoretical explanation and concise explications of five satyagrahas, the most valuable of which are the Vykom and Salt Satyagraha accounts. I really cannot over-emphasize the importance of this book, especially the first four chapters, for a college-level course. A high school teacher would certainly want to use it for reference.
A transition is needed for the American segment, and it can be provided by means of the two introductory parts of a video recently shown on PBS, “A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict”; there is a related but separate book with the same title.8 (I will be using both the text and the video in a senior seminar this spring.) There is another important text: Sudarshan Kapur’s Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi.9 It is important, for it provides the historical links between Gandhi and the American movement. But it may well be more important for the instructor than the students, especially at the high school or community college level, as some students seem to have trouble absorbing it (through no fault of the book). There is a good substitute, which can be put on reserve: chapter three (“East to West: Contacts between the Indian and American movements”) of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action, by Mary King.10Although this book is somewhat expensive, it could well do as the only text in a course approaching the Gandhi-King comparison from a different angle than mine, which is historical and India-based. In any event, it is a fine work and should be examined by the instructor.
There are several textual choices for the American section. Until recently I used an oral history which was almost parallel to the “Eyes on the Prize” video series, My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the South Remembered. I still like it, but consider Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis, to be without peer. It provides a broader and yet more vertical insight by the person I feel to be the most important after King. He certainly was very, very involved in many phases of the movement.11
Finally, I need to say this about texts before I suggest supportive works, primary and secondary, by which I mean those of use to the teacher or instructor for background and preparation. There is so much written on the American movement and on Gandhi that there is no way all could be included in this short article; this applies to what I have called supportive works as well. Some readers are going to be displeased with my omissions; indeed, I have omitted some that I like very much, but thought their relevancy to be secondary to the particular purposes of this article. The same could be said for videos. I have not mentioned many Web sites; they appear and disappear with rapidity. Further, many Web sites that focus on Gandhi are hagiographical and today’s search engines make locating such sites and links to similar sites relatively easy.
I find the use of levity important to break the tension, or at least the seriousness, in such a course. I like to read the class a passage from Krishna Nehru Hutheesing’s autobiography, We Nehrus, in which she relates a conversation involving Gandhi and her father when the latter was on his deathbed, but still clearly coherent. Gandhi chides Motilal Nehru for calling for a drink at cocktail-time. The great lawyer and freedom-fighter, good friend of Gandhi but so very different from him, humorously chides Gandhi back, telling him that he shall leave the unworldly for Gandhi, that as long as he himself is on earth, he will be earthy. It provides a balance.12
References for Instruction and additional text possibilities
The basic source for historical background, as well as theory and practicality of nonviolence, is Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a three-part study funded in part by the Department of Defense.13 Two more recent (though not necessarily more valuable) sources are Robert J. Burrowes’s The Strategies of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach,14 and a collection of essays, Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective.15 As the subtitle suggests, the latter consists of wide-ranging assessments of fairly recent movements and events; there is, however, historical account of movements in the United States.16
As for Gandhi himself, there are too many sources, primary and secondary. Most, such as the hundred-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi17 and his autobiography18 I find to be unnecessary for this course. On the other hand, Satyagraha in South Africa is far more useful, although also not really necessary.19 It is a good read, however, and does provide insight into an important and formative period of his life, and of the development of satyagraha. Particularly useful for reference, and topically arranged (and with excellent indices) is the three-volume collection of Gandhi’s writings edited by Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi.20
There are several good anthologies of varying length, such as Dennis Dalton’s Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Political Writings (particularly the first half, on satyagraha), and, especially for a lower-division or high school course, All Men Are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections, edited by a colleague of Gandhi, Krishna Kripalani. A bit unwieldy and voluminous for the course, but good for background, is a work first published by Indiana University Press in 1956, again in print in paperback: The Gandhi Reader: A Sourcebook of His Life and Writings. Its value lies in the inclusion of items by a number of people besides Gandhi (e.g., Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore).21
For purposes of my course, the Sofri text suffices for biography, along with the film and video on Gandhi. There are, however, a great many biographies. I will only mention three recent ones, the newest being Stanley Wolpert’s Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, which is not yet in paperback. B. R. Nanda’s Gandhi and His Critics is in paperback and has the advantage of being concise. Of particular value for such a course, and in paperback, is Dennis Dalton’s Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. It contains a chapter on Gandhi, King, and Malcolm X, as well as a detailed analysis of the Salt Satyagraha.22
There are probably hundreds of secondary references on Gandhi, many very good indeed. I am going to mention just four, based on their direct relevance to the course, as I see it.
In my experience, the most thorough and challenging intellectually is Raghavan Iyer’s The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. When it was in print I used it in a class which was devoted entirely and solely to Gandhi. It worked well, especially as it addresses Gandhian concepts within the Advaita philosophical context. Less philosophical and more in a social and historical context is Krishnalal Shridharani’s War Without Violence, which takes a fascinating and very human approach. He makes connections between Gandhi and the culture which I have seen nowhere else. Were it in print, I would use it.23
The other two sources are recent: The introduction to Anthony J. Parel’s edition of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and the collection of essays he edited, Gandhi, Freedom and Self-Rule. I am sure there are any number of people who would insist that Hind Swaraj itself, Gandhi’s “seminal” work, must be read; I am not so sure for this course, even as background for the instructor; but the introduction is invaluable, really elucidating the points and contexts of Hind Swaraj (“Indian Independence”) better than the work itself. In the collection of essays, two are of great value: Dennis Dalton’s “Gandhi’s Originality” and Stephen Hay’s “Gandhi: Guide to a Better Human Future.”24
Finally, the instructor may wish to look at a small book by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai, chronicling the Ahmedabad Textile Workers’ Satyagraha. Not only is the thirty-seven-page account of the struggle of interest and use for its narrative and detail, but the explication of the leaflets and appendices attached provide a clearly organized insight into the practical mechanics of a satyagraha.25
I will keep my remarks on background and reference material on King brief, in part because some have been covered above, and in part because the material is more accessible than that on Gandhi. Besides, as a South Asianist I am much less comfortable here than with the Gandhi material. Again, I will mention what I have found to be of greatest use.
Among the many biographies, David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is a standard. The basic resource for the movement is likely to be Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winning Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. There is also a moving video biography, but it is 103 minutes long, making class use problematical.26
Less intimidating in terms of volume is a concise study by William D. Watley, Roots of Resistance: The Nonviolent Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr. A valuable collection of essays is We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Freedom Struggle. A very readable history is Robert Weisbrot’s Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement.
An excellent reference tool, encyclopedic in nature, is Sanford Wexler’s The Civil Rights Movement: An Eyewitness History. A powerful set of photographs, arranged chronologically by event, is Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. Finally, a primary source is A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., which is arranged topically.27
An invaluable reference, which might easily be overlooked, is the daily newspaper. First, events often happen locally which can have at least indirect bearing on the course. Next, when prominent figures in the movement die, obituaries can be a great source of information (especially in the New York Times which is now available seemingly everywhere). Finally, an event may happen of such importance that it is written up with a comparative context to the movement, such as the arrest of Rev. Al Sharpton and associates for protesting U.S. Navy bombing practice in Puerto Rico (New York Times, June 3, 2001, p. 26; this particular article is good, with mention of both King and Gandhi).
Perhaps not of direct relevance in regard to civil disobedience, but certainly of use at least in a peripheral manner is material available from the Southern Poverty Law Center (Montgomery), both in regard to publications and tapes, often made available at discount, often free, for educational purposes. The Center’s magazine, Teaching Tolerance, is free to teachers and is very useful, as is its outstanding Web site.28
Classroom Approaches and Activities
In addition to listing teacher resources, Teaching Tolerance and its Website, as well as that of the Asia Society, provide suggested activities. There are also some items for discussion and examination that I use which could be modified effectively for classroom participation. These are largely of a comparative nature. It would be useful for students first to clearly understand that satyagraha is not the same as pacifism; it is not violent, but it is “war by other means.” A discussion on this issue might help clarify the meaning of satyagraha. Similarly, a discussion of the similarities between the American civil rights movement (especially as described in the “Eyes on the Prize” series) and the satyagraha movement in India – in terms of intent, method, and ideals-should help clarify the universal nature of such an approach.
Depending on how deeply one wishes to get into the history of the movement, students could be asked to explore the perceptions of Gandhi by black Americans early in the twentieth century, especially how they rationalized the fact that, although he was not a Christian, he lived a Christly life. Students might be asked to develop individual reports on some of the generally unsung heroes of the American movement, for example (to name just a very few): James Farmer, C. T. Vivian, Fred Shuttlesworth, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer. There are many, many others in “Eyes on the Prize.” John Lewis’s role as liaison between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Students’ Nonviolent Coordinating Committee might be discussed in terms of generation gap. James Lawson’s role as teacher of Gandhian nonviolence is essential, though until lately it has generally gone unrecognized. That lack of recognition, as well as the importance of his teaching, should be noted, and the reasons discussed.
It can be very worthwhile to have students do concise descriptive comparisons, written or oral, between a particular satyagraha and an American civil rights event (sources: Bondurant’s outline accounts and “Eyes on the Prize”). The best examples are the Vykom Temple Road Satyagraha and the Salt Satyagraha on the Indian side, and the Montgomery bus boycott, Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, and Selma-Montgomery march on the American side. Besides the general features, methods employed are of critical importance. Students could consider which ones make the best pairs. They probably will not agree on their pairings.
Communication – open, nonsecretive communication – was essential in both movements. The importance and purpose of such open discussion could be highlighted by examination of the use of leaflets in the Ahmedabad Textile Workers’ Satyagraha, included in Mahadev Desai’s account of the movement (see note 25).
There are other, perhaps more basic but difficult activities. Depending on the level and the depth desired, students could be asked to equate the three pillars of satyagraha (again, Bondurant text) with equivalents in the American movement: satya = faith in God; ahimsa = nonviolence; tapasya = discipline/sacrifice. Not only the basic similarities, but the subtle distinctions could be studied. Here it should be noted that both Gandhi and King had implicit faith in God-but it must be stressed that while one was Christian, the other was Hindu. What, if any, difference did that make? And why was each, a man of nonviolence, killed with violence?
Most important is an exercise of considerable significance: have students study King’s classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 12, 1963 (available from countless sources), and then comment on the Gandhian satyagraha elements (or similarities) therein. It could be done as a paper or a take-home test; regardless, the Letter must be read in such a course.
The last exercise might well take too long, but it does go the heart of the matter. I show the first tape and about half of the second of “The Jewel in the Crown” (based on Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet).29 It is the story of a tragic love affair between a British girl and an Indian boy, with consequences unimaginable to most students today. It can just as effectively be seen individually (or in small groups) outside of class, but is likely to raise some incredulity from students.
After the overwhelming events of September 11, 2001, I mentioned to the editor that it could be appropriate to provide a statement in regard to what might have been Gandhi’s response in regard to armed reprisal. Of course there is danger here; asked what Mahatma Gandhi would have said about Indian armed involvement in the Bangladesh war, then prime minister Indira Gandhi replied something to the effect of, “We don’t know, do we? He’s not here.” That reply is not as flippant as it may seem. Gandhi did not believe in consistency for its own sake. In one way or another he was supportive (albeit not in a combative role) in the Boer War, the Zulu Rebellion, and World War I. He also did not believe in nonviolence as something purely physical; he had at least two qualifications upon it: nonviolence is more mental than physical, and far worse than violence is cowardice.
Having said all that, I wish to leave the matter to the words of Gandhi himself, a metaphor or allegory from an article in Young India, September 13, 1938. He received criticism, and in his replies to it admitted – in his typical manner – that his rationalization was not entirely adequate, but that it would have to do.30
1. Satyagraha (pronounced sut-yaah-gra-huh) is a compound Sanskrit term devised by Gandhi, and a complex concept. It is composed of satya (literally, “being,” implying permanence as opposed to the relative world of change), the prefix ~- (to, unto), and graha (cognate with grab, possibly grasp). It has been translated many ways, e.g., truth-force, and is literally “grasping toward Being,” or, as Gandhi preferred, “Truth” or “God” (or “Love,” in a broad sense, like Christian agape).
2. Ahimsa is a negation of the desiderative, literally “not possessing the desire to do violence”; in his inimitable way, Gandhi gave it a positive spin.
3. First series, “America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965” (Boston: Blackside, 1987). Each program (of six) is sixty minutes. Program 1, “Awakenings (1954-1956)” deals with Emmett Till’s murder and the Montgomery bus boycott; Program 2, “Fighting Back (1957-1962)” deals with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and James Meredith at the University of Mississippi; Program 3, “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)” deals with the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides; Program 4, “No Easy Walk (1961-1963)” deals with Birmingham and the March on Washington; Program 5, “Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964)” deals with Freedom Summer, the killings of Medgar Evers and Chaney, Goodwin, and Schwerner, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Program 6, “Bridge to Freedom (1965)” deals with Selma and the Selma march to Montgomery. Depending on the focus in the course, all are useful and moving; but for comparisons the second part of Program 1, Montgomery, and also Program 3, Nashville and the Freedom Rides, are best, clearly comparable to some of the satyagrahas outlined by Joan Bondurant in Conquest of Violence (see below).
4. Satyagrahas are events using the generic satyagraha; thus, what is generally referred to as the Salt March in this country is more commonly called the Salt Satyagraha in India. (A participant in a satyagraha is a satyagrahi.)
5. Translated by Janet Sethre Paxia (New York: Interlink Books, 1999). An alternative, especially for high school, is Catherine Clément, Gandhi: The Power of Pacificism (an unfortunate title; Gandhi is not considered “pacificist”) (New York: Harry N. Abrams, n.d.); it is also well illustrated, historical in structure, with interesting appendices.
6. Both are entitled “Gandhi.” The CBS program (narrated by Walter Cronkite; McGraw-Hill, 1959) is on reel and not easily available. The Attenborough film is on video and easily attainable.
7. Princeton University Press, new rev. ed., 1988 (originally published by the University of California Press, 1958). Another work useful for theory is William Borman, Gandhi and Non-Violence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986); for satyagraha campaigns, Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi Against Machiavellism: Non-Violence in Politics (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1966).
8. The video (York Zimmerman and WETA, Washington, D.C., 1999) starts with the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and then moves to Gandhi. These two initial segments are so effectively done that they could as well be used to start the course. Perhaps the most impressive feature is the emphasis on the Rev. James Lawson, the Gandhian theoretician who had studied in India, and his leadership impact on the college students of the Nashville sit-ins.
The book is by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), but is different in structure and is more extensive. The authors state (p. xiii) that the documentary “was the occasion of this book” and is “our most-cited source.” The chapters on India (pp. 61-112) and the American civil rights movement (pp. 305-34) are particularly useful. It is now in paperback, and would make a good text for a course designed to go beyond the Gandhi-King, India-America comparison.
9. Boston: Beacon, 1992; this edition is difficult to obtain, but an Indian edition is usually available through South Asia Books, Columbia, Missouri.
10. Paris: UNESCO, 1999; pp. 175-98. The book provides historical contexts and comparative statements of Gandhi and King (e.g., on means and ends; religious faith).
11. Lewis’s memoir was written with Michael D’Orso (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998; paperback, San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1999). Howell Haines is the editor of the anthology (New York: Penguin Books, 1983; orig. ed. Putnam, 1977). Two other readers are excellent, but extend considerably beyond King’s death; each is directly tied to both series of “Eyes on the Prize”: The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, Clayborne Carson, et al., eds. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991); Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1991).
There is also a companion volume to the PBS Television Series: Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (New York: Viking, 1987).
12. With Alden Hatch (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 93. He also relates to Gandhi that while the latter will undoubtedly cross the Hindu-equivalent of the river Styx holding onto the tail of a cow, Motilal himself will arrive via motorboat – then adds, that is, if there is a heaven.
13. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973. Part One: Power and Struggle; Part Two: The Methods of Nonviolent Action; Part Three: The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action.
14. Albany: State University of New York, 1996.
15. Edited by Stephen Zunes, et al. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999).
16. Charles Chatfield, “Nonviolent Social Movements in the United States: A Historical Overview,” pp. 283-301.
17. Delhi: Government of India, 1959-94.
18. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai (various publishers, 1927- ).
19. Translated by Mahadev Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1928).
20. Vol. I: Civilization, Politics, and Religion; vol. II: Truth and Non-Violence; vol. III: Non-Violent Resistance and Social Transformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986-1987). There is a paperback redaction, unfortunately out of print, itself over four hundred pages: The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).
21. “Part I. Satyagraha: The Power of Nonviolence” (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), pp. 27-94. The second half, or Part II, is “Swaraj: Gandhi’s Idea of Freedom.”
22. Wolpert (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Nanda (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993); Dalton, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). I think I would be remiss not to mention my favorite biography, and the inspiration for Attenborough’s fine film: Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Harper, 1950). This very enjoyable account by a journalist should not be confused with his shorter paperback biography of Gandhi; unfortunately, the longer more readable version is out of print.
23. Iyer, 2nd ed. (Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, 1983). Shridharani (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1962); it is a revision of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, ca. 1939, at Columbia University.
24. Hind Swaraj and Other Writings (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997), pp. xiii-xxvi. Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2000); Dalton, pp. 63-85; Hay, pp. 139-52.
25. A Righteous Struggle (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1951). I have used this little book quite advantageously as a text. It has been available from Greenleaf Books, a seemingly mobile distributor of “Gandhiana” (with their address moving around in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine).
26. Garrow (New York: Random House, 1987 and 1999).
27. Watley (Valley Forge: Judson, 1985/1994).
28. The fall 2001 issue (p. 57) has a list of references of direct and peripheral interest for this article. The Website is www.teachingtolerance.org. This Web site has numerous links, as well as sections for teachers, parents, and kids. A few other Websites should be mentioned as well: www.askasia.org of the Asia Society and Education About Asia’s own Website, www.aasianst.org/eaa-toc.htm; www.bpagency.com (type “Gandhi” in the “title” section) provides a comprehensive list of books about Gandhi, with annotation available.
29. London: Granada, 1983; it is roughly equivalent with the first volume, also called The Jewel in the Crown (New York: Avon, 1979; first published in Great Britain, 1966). The problem is, the time involved is about 150 minutes.
30. The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, volume II: Truth and Non-Violence, edited by Raghavan Iyer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 465 and subsequent pages for the exchange of response.
Fritz Blackwell is an Associate Professor of History and past Director of the Asia Program at Washington State University. He has published a number of articles on Indian culture, and has coedited a book of poetry from India and Letters from Chittagong. Currently he is working on a reference book on India and, in collaboration with others, a world civilization reader of travelers’ tales.