Do Revolutions Need Passports? From Gandhi to King to the Arab Spring


by Nico Slate

On Thursday November 17, a few days after Occupy Wall Street protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park, a poster emerged declaring “mass non-violent direct action” to “shut down wall street,” “occupy the subways,” and “take the square.” While the reference to “non-violent direct action” reminded me of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, it was the image that accompanied the text that most warmed my historian’s heart. A lone figure confronts three tanks, their uplifted canons helpless before one human body. The historical analogy was obvious: Zuccotti Park is to democracy in 2011 as Tiananmen Square was to democracy in 1989. From Tiananmen to Tahrir to Zuccotti and beyond, images of revolution have gone global.

Do revolutions spread as easily as their images? In my forthcoming book, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, I argue that connections between freedom struggles in the United States and India, made famous by the relationship between Gandhi and King, were much more significant than historians have realized. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, South Asians and African Americans learned from each other in ways that not only advanced their respective struggles for freedom, but helped define what freedom could and should mean. This transnational exchange did not entail the clean transfer of ideas, practices or identities. Rather, a complex process of self-transformation through self-recognition bridged struggles that were themselves internally diverse. Looking abroad and seeing oneself involved reflection in both senses of the word; a partial mirroring and a great amount of thought and practice. Revolutions travel, but their journey is a process that, like translating a poem, brims with loss as well as creation.

Take, for example, a 50-year-old comic book about Dr. King’s approach to nonviolent resistance. Translated into Arabic, the comic book has been circulating amongst protesters in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. According to an article by CNN, the cartoon is only one manifestation of a broad interest in the civil rights movement amongst today’s nonviolent activists. The comic book in question, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, itself documents an older link between the civil rights movement and freedom struggles throughout the world. The comic book, which can be found here, traces King’s leadership back to the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns led by Gandhi.

Just as the Occupy Wall Street poster compared Zucotti Park and Tiananmen Square, the comic book offers an analogy between American racism and British imperialism. But it doesn’t stop there. Several of the cartoon’s panels depict Gandhi’s struggle against caste oppression within India. The cartoon thus graphically illustrates the most pervasive tension in the long history of connections between African American and South Asian freedom struggles, a tension between two powerful analogies. One analogy compared African Americans with all colonized subjects of the British Raj. The other juxtaposed African Americans with Dalits, often known as “untouchables”. While King praised Gandhi as an icon in the struggle against American-style caste oppression, many Indians, including the renowned Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, attacked Gandhi as an impediment on the path toward freedom from caste. Ambedkar reached out to the African American intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, in an effort to establish an alternative axis of connection between African Americans and India.

From Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published by The Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1959

As I detail in Colored Cosmopolitanism, connections between Indian and African American freedom struggles go well beyond the relationship between Gandhi and King. The comic book was published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that by the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been working for decades to translate Gandhian methods for use in the struggle for racial equality in the United States. FOR helped organize the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that launched sit-ins modeled on Gandhian protest in the early 1940s and later pioneered the freedom rides. Many civil rights activists—some now famous and others largely forgotten—turned to India for inspiration and ideas.

Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, two young Black women were arrested on a bus near Petersburg, Virginia. Like Parks, both women were already actively engaged in the struggle for racial equality. By the time they boarded an old bus bound for Durham, North Carolina in late March 1940, Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean had long discussed how they could most effectively challenge racial segregation. The poor condition of their bus gave them the opportunity to translate their thoughts into action. Seated near the back of the bus, directly over a wheel, the two young women suffered with every bump. When McBean began to feel a sharp pain in her side, she and Murray occupied seats in the middle of the bus. The driver told them to move back. They refused and, after a lengthy debate with the driver and local police officers, were arrested. Murray wrote friends soon after her arrest, “We did not plan our arrest intentionally. The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of Satyagraha on the spot.”

Gandhi used the word satyagraha, combining the Sanskrit for “truth” and “holding firm,” to refer to his particular approach to nonviolent civil disobedience. In her memoirs, Murray remembered that when she and McBean were arrested their knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and they had “no experience in the Gandhian method.” Like Murray, many Americans would learn the “Gandhian method” in the process of applying it against racial injustice. Less a rigid system than a series of guiding principles and a source of inspiration, Gandhian satyagraha would be reinvented in restaurants, department stores, buses and jails throughout the United States.

In Colored Cosmopolitanism, I argue that such linkages were part of a larger constellation of connections in which nonviolent activists, Black and South Asian Muslims, Hindu reformers, Christian missionaries, followers of Marcus Garvey, African American soldiers, Indian immigrants, labor organizers, and many others forged links across freedom struggles. What provided coherence to these multifaceted linkages? I argue that a transnational conception of color came to serve as a bridge between people struggling against racism throughout the world. African Americans and South Asians together imagined a colored cosmopolitanism, a “dark” or “colored” world united in the struggle against racism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Advocates of colored cosmopolitanism fought for the freedom of the “colored world” even while calling into question the meanings of both color and freedom.

Colored cosmopolitanism became enmeshed in global power politics, especially during the Second World War and the Cold War. In the mid 1940s, as Pauli Murray and other activists used Gandhian techniques to attack American racism, twenty-thousand African American soldiers arrived in India. Their experiences created new opportunities for Afro-Indian solidarity only a few years before India emerged as a major player in a new, decolonized world.  The history of nonviolent civil disobedience is bound up with the larger story of anti-colonial and post-colonial nationalisms, Afro-Indian solidarity, the origins of the Third World, and the Cold War.

The links that African Americans and South Asians forged with each other contributed to the dismantling of the British Raj and of Jim Crow segregation, as well as the decline of a racialized global order. Not all South Asians and African Americans benefited equally from these achievements, as the continuing struggles of Dalits and impoverished African Americans make evident. Rather than overlook the internal diversity and mixed success of Indian and African American freedom struggles, Colored Cosmopolitanism tracks how transnational connections at times elided and at other times accommodated local and national diversities. It was the multiplicity of South Asian and African American freedom struggles that created the space for their meaningful interaction. If revolutions are to succeed at creating sustainable change, they need to cross not only the boundaries of nations, but also the boundaries that divide nations—a challenge that is all too evident these days in Egypt, India, and the United States.

About the Author:

Nico Slate is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University.