A few years later in 1959, King and his wife traveled to India and went on a frenetic tour of the country. He was pleased that Indians were familiar with events in Alabama. “They praised our experiment with nonviolent resistance technique at Montgomery,” he wrote. “They seem to look upon it as an outstanding example of the possibilities of its use in Western civilization. To them as to me, it also suggests that nonviolent resistance when planned and positive in action can work effectively even under totalitarian regimes.”
As much as he was enamored with the “soul” of India, King was fairly clear-eyed in his travels around the country. He was struck by the poverty and landlessness bequeathed to India by the British. He astutely drew a parallel between the workings of race in America with the persistence of caste in India, and praised the Indian government and constitution for legislating against caste discrimination. He commended Gandhi’s practice of guiding “untouchables” into the holy sanctum of temples, which had been barred to them for centuries. “To equal that,” King suggested, “President Eisenhower would take a Negro child by the hand and lead her into Central High School in Little Rock.”
King remained both engaged in freedom movements overseas and aware that his efforts in the United States were part of a wider struggle. “The large majority of the human race is nonwhite, yet it is the large majority that lives in hideous poverty,” he said in 1965. He liaised with Zambian freedom fighters. En route to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize, he stopped in London to call for economic sanctions against South Africa.
In all this committed activity, one can hear echoes of Gandhi’s conviction in the larger purpose of his work in India. “My ambition is much higher than independence,” Gandhi wrote in 1928. “Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation.” The movements that sped decolonization around the world were often built on great acts of border-crossing imagination. Both Gandhi and King understood that to combat vast structures of power and domination one needed a comparably vast sense of moral purpose. Their striving universalism was remarkable for emerging in the face of forces that aimed to confine and restrict Indian and black lives.
It’s fitting that in his last speech before being killed in Memphis in 1968, King sketched the global contours of his fateful political moment. “Something is happening in our world,” he said. “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”
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