Martin Luther King Jr. is a historical figure as he helped to win civic liberties and social equality for the Black Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. His approach towards the struggle was based on nonviolent civil disobedience as opposed to armed struggle. In that, he was inspired by the philosophy of nonviolence used by Gandhi to gain independence for India against the British. Despite belonging to two different cultures and historical periods, there is great fundamental similarity in the philosophies of both the leaders. At the same time, King adopts a more active approach and gives relatively less stress on personal suffering and endurance.
What King adopted from Gandhi's Philosophy
Gandhi initiated the civil disobedience movement against the British rule in the Indian subcontinent. Since the British had military superiority over the local Indian population, Gandhi devised a novel and effective strategy to highlight the illegitimacy of British rule. The civil disobedience movement was initiated by the salt march of 1930 where Gandhi marched from Ahmadabad to the coastal town of Dandi where he and his followers made salt from the ocean in defiance of the British monopoly over salt trade in India. This was a notable event that illustrated the philosophy of nonviolence that was to characterize the civil disobedience movement and later the movement for independence from the British.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. was trying to raise awareness against the discrimination of African-Americans in the United States who had been experiencing discriminatory treatment in society despite being citizens after the American Civil War almost a hundred years ago. In 1959, King visited the birthplace of Gandhi in India who had been assassinated eleven years ago in 1948. That experience cemented King's faith in the effectiveness of nonviolence as the means of attaining justice and dignity for Black Americans.
Religious and Strategic Orientation
Nojeim (2004) notes in his book Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance the similarity in outlook between Gandhi and king with regard to the use of nonviolence. According to Nojeim (p. 31) there exists a difference between "strategic commitment" and "philosophical commitment" to nonviolence. While strategic commitment involves a rational analysis of nonviolence as an effective strategy to deal with the specific circumstances of a situation, philosophical commitment implies a religious commitment to nonviolent means as the ideal approach for resolving disputes and conflicts between various groups of human beings in society.
Upon reading about Gandhi's ideas and visiting his birthplace, King too was convinced about the need for strategic and philosophical commitment to nonviolence. Gandhi too had been a believer in the philosophical and strategic commitment to nonviolence. King adopted this religious and strategic orientation from Gandhi's approach and applied it to the struggle against oppression of Black Americans. In fact, he even believed Gandhi's philosophy to reflect the typically Christian ideals and values of turning the other cheek.
On the other hand, strategic commitment to violence involves the acknowledgment of the necessity and effectiveness of nonviolence to resolve a particular conflict. Gandhi used nonviolence strategically because the British possessed military superiority over the Indians, which would have made violence result in a crushing defeat for the resistance movement. Similarly, King believed in a strategic commitment towards nonviolence in order to distinguish his movement and give it greater moral legitimacy compared with other leaders such as Malcolm X championing the cause of Black Americans at the same time. Therefore, the first similarity between Gandhi and King can be said to be their religious and strategic commitment to the use of nonviolence in their respective struggles for human dignity and equality of all men.
The Importance of Constructive Action
Both Gandhi and King believed that nonviolence had an important role to play in public policy. Nonviolence could be used as an effective means to assert the opinions and attitudes of disadvantaged groups without disrupting civil order. This approach would enable their voice to be heard and influence any public policy aimed at affecting their interests. As a result, both Gandhi and king believed that nonviolence could be used as a means for constructive social action and a way of building a better community for all people. When Gandhi led his struggle of civil disobedience against the British, he did not aim to improve the lot of only the Hindus in India, who were in a vast majority over the Muslim population. Instead, Gandhi struggled to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity and sought the support and participation of Muslims in his civil disobedience movement. By doing this, Gandhi aimed to create a harmonious society where all human beings were free and were treated as equal citizens.
In a similar vein, king also believed nonviolence to be a means of social change. He believed that suffering for a higher cause can bring about a transformation of the society by raising awareness about inequalities and injustices. Like Gandhi, he too did not pit Black Americans against the white majority. Instead, he aimed for a harmonious society where both Black and White Americans were able to live as equal citizens. King believed that a "beloved community" could be created through nonviolence, understanding and compassion (Centre for Compassionate Living, 2012).
Both Gandhi and king also believed that nonviolence could be used to elevate the spirit above injustice and suffering. In this way, both King and Gandhi viewed nonviolence as a means of achieving personal change and betterment as well as social change.
The Importance of Personal Improvement
Gandhi and King also shared the belief that in order to adopt nonviolence successfully there was a need for a transformation at the personal level to precede it. Gandhi advocated that the followers of nonviolence practice personal commitment, self-discipline and personal hygiene before using nonviolence as a means to achieve their goals. King adopted this from the philosophy of Gandhi and inspired his followers to rise to a higher moral level (King, p. 1999).
Both Gandhi and King emphasized the need to make the distinction between the evil and the person. They advocated resistance against the evil to create a more harmonious and equal relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed (The King Center, 2012). In this regard, nonviolence can be said to reflect Christian religious values and ideals. King also emphasized that social change needed to be followed by a process of consolidating change and initiating a process of healing for all people involved.
Difference between the Philosophies of Gandhi and King
Although King was deeply inspired by the philosophy of Gandhi, there are some differences between the philosophies of the two. These differences arise primarily due to the historical and cultural backgrounds of the two leaders and champions of equality of human beings.
The Role of Personal Suffering
King differs from Gandhi in the less importance he places on enduring personal suffering in order to achieve the personal transformation advocated by Gandhi. Gandhi believes that the individual needs to go through personal suffering by displaying patience in order to change himself and the tyrant. This was due to the violence Gandhi and his followers had to face at the hand of the British occupiers. King and his followers did not have to suffer at the hands of the authorities and did not attach that much importance to personal suffering and patience.
The increased level of personal suffering that is embodied in the nonviolence philosophy of Gandhi could probably be due to the historical, religious and cultural background of India. The Hindus in India had been ruled by the Muslim Mughal emperors for around two hundred years. That was followed by British rule for another two hundred years. The Hindus therefore had a greater and longer experience of patience in the face of personal suffering and injustice. India being a rural and agricultural region was also probably affected by natural calamities such as droughts, floods and famine, and poverty more frequently and to a greater extent than the United States of America. In addition, the caste system of the Hindus also instilled the virtues of patience in the face of toleration of inequality and discrimination at the hands of higher caste Hindus.
The More Active Approach of King
A second difference in the philosophical approaches of Gandhi and King is that King adopts a more active and confrontational approach to bring about the social change and transformation that he wishes to see.
On the other hand, Gandhi's resistance is more passive in nature. This was probably because of the limited space that Gandhi and his followers had because of the dominance of foreign occupation of India by the British. King and his followers had relatively greater freedom, probably because of the democratic form of government as opposed to colonial rule in India, to adopt a more vocal and active approach in their strategy. Gandhi's Satyagraha was symbolic and he did not make a vocal speech to articulate his dreams for an independent India. He relied on the suffering of personal…