The Mahatma King
A look at the relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi
Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. His legacy is honored annually during the MLK federal holiday. His father, Michael King Sr. changed both his name as well as Dr. King’s name to Martin Luther after the German professor, priest, and monk who led the Protestant Reformation movement of the 1500s. King would go on to earn his PhD in systemic theology from Boston University in 1955 and is today as decorated as any American in history with over 50 honorary degrees, a Nobel Peace Prize, a Grammy Award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and of course a national holiday in his honor. In 2000, Dr. King ranked 6th in Time’s Person of the Century list.
Mahatma Gandhi came in third on the same Time Person of the Century list. Gandhi was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar, India. What do these two men have in common? The answer is simple, Ahimsa (commonly translated as non-violence) and Satyagraha (loyalty to truth and justice). The more intriguing question is how did a philosophy used to overthrow the British Empire’s rule of India in the 1940’s turn into the foundation of the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1960s? At what point did Dr. King become the Mahatma King?
To better explore that answer we need to look to the events of 1870s to 1890s South Africa. In the ‘90s Gandhi was thrown out of a first class train car because he was colored and therefore not allowed to ride in first class. He sat all night in the shivering cold contemplating whether or not he should return to India. It was that night that Gandhi resolved to conquer racial injustice through non-violent means and to remain in South Africa because retreat would be a sign of weakness. He resolved to use Ahimsa to challenge his oppressors. This was the night his Satyagraha movement was born. Students of American history may find the parallel of Gandhi’s train encounter strikingly similar to that of Rosa Parks whose refusal to move to the back of the bus in 1955, in many ways, ignited the American Civil Rights movement.
In 1894, still in South Africa, Gandhi fought against a bill to deny Indians the right to vote. Thus began Gandhi’s legacy as an advocate for Indian Civil Rights….akin to that of Dr. King and the American Civil Rights movement.
The King Meets the Mahatma
But where did these two giants cross paths? How did Michael King Jr. of Atlanta become the Mahatma Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for America? For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Mahatma is a Sanskrit term of honor meaning high-souled, venerable, or enlightened and it can be said that Dr. King was a Mahatma himself as his mentor Gandhiji was.
So where did King meet the Gandhi? The short answer is they never actually met in person. King’s trip to India in the 50s came after Gandhiji had been assassinated in 1948. To understand where the two met philosophically we must look at King’s time at Crozer Theological Seminary.
In 1950, King heard Howard University President Mordecai Johnson speak of Gandhi, Satyagraha, and Ahimsa. This speech touched King greatly and he began to frame Gandhiji’s life in the context of the life of Jesus Christ. King said, “Christ showed us the way and Gandhi in India showed it could work.” “Jesus showed the idea, but Gandhi unpacked the life of Jesus more than anybody in history.” “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace & harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.” “Gandhi is the greatest Christian of the modern world.”
It is here, in the 1950s that King found Christ in the Mahatma and the world is better for it. Dr. King’s story, as with Gandhiji, is well known. His role in the March on Washington, the fight for voting rights in Selma, the movement for open housing in Chicago and so on and so forth is that of legend and deserving of a prominent place in our nation's history books.
King was a man of the ages, as was Gandhi. But these two men, separated by oceans, nearly 60 years in age, race, color, religion, and creed, found a common bond in a common philosophy, Ahimsa and Satyagraha. Justice through non-violence, compassion, duty, freedom, and service. These men have earned the title Mahatma in legacies that have spanned centuries. Each year we take a day off to honor Dr. King. There is no national holiday to honor Gandhiji, yet, but nonetheless we owe it to each other to continue to remind ourselves and future generations of what these titans accomplished through love, compassion, and peace.
Perhaps more than any other time in my lifetime, their lessons are needed now. Until we find another Mahatma, let us be thankful we had Mahatma Gandhi, and the Mahatma King.