When the Mahatma met Jesus: Gandhianism, African American evangelism and the fight for racial justice.
In this excerpt, Arsenault describes the influence those earlier freedom riders, steeped in the traditions of the Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, had on the group of activists emerging in Montgomery in the Fifties under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King.
During the immediate postwar era, the radical wing of the civil rights struggle was small, predominantly white, and fragmented among several organizations. Concentrated in New York, Chicago, and other large Northern cities, the radicals included followers of Mohandas Gandhi, Christian socialists, labor and peace activists, Quaker pacifists, Communists, and a varied assortment of left-wing intellectuals. Though ideologically diverse, they shared a commitment to militant agitation aimed at bringing about fundamental and even revolutionary change. Like India's Gandhi, they dreamed of a world liberated from the scourges of racial prejudice, class oppression, and colonialism. Open to a variety of provocative tactics--economic boycotts, picketing, protest marches, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action--they operated on the radical fringe of American politics. With perhaps a few thousand adherents, the radical approach constituted something less than a mass movement, but the social and political turmoil of the Great Depression and the Second World War had produced a vanguard of activists passionately committed to widening the scope and accelerating the pace of the struggle for civil and human rights.
In 1946 the most active members of this radical vanguard were affiliated with two interrelated organizations, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and its parent organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). It was within these groups that the idea of the Freedom Ride was born. Founded in Chicago in 1942, CORE drew inspiration from the wartime stirrings of decolonization in Africa and Asia and from the recent success of nonviolent mass resistance in Gandhi's India. It also drew upon a somewhat older tradition of nonviolent protest nurtured by FOR, founded in 1914 at an international gathering of Christian pacifists in London.
As FOR youth secretary, Bayard Rustin returned to the pacifist track that he had followed as an American Friends Service Committee volunteer, immersing himself in the writings and teachings of Gandhi and pledging his loyalty to nonviolence, not just as a strategy for change, but as a way of life. FOR executive director A.J. Muste encouraged and nurtured Rustin's determination to apply Gandhian precepts to the African American struggle for racial equality, and in the spring of 1972, the two men joined forces with other FOR activists to found the Committee (later Congress) of Racial Equality. "Certainly the Negro possesses qualities essential for nonviolent direct action," Rustin wrote prophetically in October 1942. "He has long since learned to endure suffering. He can admit his own share of guilt and has to be pushed hard to become bitter ... He is creative and has learned to adjust himself to conditions easily. But above all, he possesses a rich religious heritage and today finds the church the center of his life."
As a CORE stalwart, Rustin participated in a number of nonviolent protests, including an impromptu refusal to move to the back of a bus during a trip from Louisville to Nashville in the early summer of 1942. This particular episode earned him a roadside beating at the hands of the Nashville police, who later hauled him off to jail. A month after the incident, Rustin offered the readers of the FOR journal Fellowship a somewhat whimsical description of his arrest:
I was put into the back seat of the police car, between two policeman. Two others sat in front. During the thirteen-mile ride to town they called me every conceivable name and said anything they could think of to incite me to violence ... When we reached Nashville, a number of policemen were lined up on both sides of the hallway down which I had to pass on my way to the captain's office. They tossed me from one to another like a volleyball. By the time I reached the office, the lining of my best coat was torn, and I was considerably rumpled. I straightened myself as best I could and went in. They had my bag, and went through it and my papers, finding much of interest, especially in the Christian Century and Fellowship. Finally the captain said, "Come here, nigger." I walked directly to him. "What can I do for you?" I asked. "Nigger," he said menacingly, "you're supposed to be scared when you come in here!" "I am fortified by the truth, justice, and Christ," I said, "there is no need for me to fear." He was flabbergasted and, for a time, completely at a loss for words. Finally he said to another officer, "I believe the nigger's crazy."
In the end, the timely intervention of a sympathetic white bystander who had witnessed the roadside beating and the restraint of a cool-headed assistant district attorney (Ben West, a future Nashville mayor who would draw widespread praise for his moderate response to the student sit-ins of 1960 and 1961) kept Rustin out of jail, reinforcing his suspicion that even the white South could be redeemed through nonviolent struggle.
Later, largely through the efforts of Rustin, FOR exerted a powerful influence on the emerging historical, political, and ideological consciousness of the charismatic twenty-six-year-old minister of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Martin Luther King and other MIA leaders. The first national civil rights leader to grasp the full significance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rustin thrust himself into the center of the struggle. He wanted the boycotters to broaden their philosophical horizons and feel the pride and responsibility of being part of a worldwide movement for human rights. Styling himself a Gandhian sage, he became convinced that he was the one person who could show them how to make the most of an extraordinary opportunity. Though virtually unknown to the general public, he was a revered figure in the international subculture of Gandhian intellectuals. No one who met him could fail to be impressed with the quality of his mind and his deep commitment to nonviolence, not to mention his boundless energy. Those who knew him well, however, were painfully aware of another side of his life. In an age when homosexuality was associated with social and political subversion, his personal life was a source of concern and embarrassment for FOR, a fragile organization that could ill afford a major scandal. After several encounters with the vice squad and a stern reprimand from the normally placid A.J. Muste, Rustin promised to behave, but in June 1953 an arrest for lewd and lascivious behavior in Pasadena, California, led to a thirty-day jail term and his resignation from the FOR staff. By the time he returned to New York to pick up the pieces of his life, even some of his closest friends had concluded that the nonviolent movement might be better off without him. Although he soon found a haven at the War Resisters League, which offered him a position as executive secretary, Rustin's career as an in fluential activist appeared to be over. He, of course, felt otherwise. All he needed was a chance to redeem himself, an opportunity to use his hard-earned wisdom to demonstrate the liberating power of nonviolence. Amazingly, he would soon find what he was looking for-not in New York or Chicago or any of the other cities that had witnessed the courage of FOR and CORE activists, but rather in the faraway streets of Montgomery.
Soon after the boycott began, the radical white Southern novelist Lillian Smith, who had once served on the national board of FOR, wired Rustin and urged him to offer his assistance to King and the MIA. If someone with experience in Gandhian tactics could bring his knowledge to bear on the situation, she suggested, the boycotters might have a real chance to sustain their movement, Rustin had never been to Alabama, but as he pondered Smith's suggestion and mulled over the early news reports on the boycott, a bold plan began to take shape. If he could find a sponsor, he would "fly to Montgomery with the idea of getting the bus boycott temporarily called off"; then, with the help of FOR, he would organize "a workshop or school of nonviolence with a goal of 100 young Negro men who will then promote it not only in Montgomery but elsewhere in the South." In early January he shared his thoughts with several friends at FOR but found little enthusiasm for his plan. Charles Lawrence, FOR's national chairman, not only questioned the wisdom of suspending an ongoing protest but also worried "that it would be easy for the police to frame him (Rustin) with his record in L.A. and New York and set back the whole cause there." FOR executive director John Swomley shared Lawrence's concern, as did the socialist leader Norman Thomas, who thought Rustin was "entirely too vulnerable on his record." "This young King is doing well. Bayard is considered a homosexual, a Communist and a draft dodger. Why do you put such a burden on King?" Thomas asked.
Eventually Rustin found a more sympathetic audience in Phil Randolph and Jim Farmer, but even they had strong misgivings about dispatching a homosexual ex-Communist to a conservative Deep South city. Though he admired Rustin's bravado, Randolph agreed to fund the trip only after it became clear that his old friend was prepared to hitchhike to Montgomery if necessary. After a telephone call to King confirmed that the MIA would welcome Rustin's visit, only the details needed to be worked out. Rustin wanted Bob Gilmore of the American Friends Service committee to accompany him and to act as a liaison with the white community in Montgomery. Randolph and Farmer, fearing an interracial team would be too conspicuous, turned instead to Bill Worthy, a thirty-four-year old black reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American. A seasoned activist, Worthy had participated in a number of FOR and CORE campaigns, including the Journey of Reconciliation. Nevertheless, the decision to send him to Montgomery as Rustin's unofficial chaperone was one that Randolph and Farmer would later regret. In 1954 Worthy had raised the hackles of the State Department with a series of sympathetic stories on the Soviet Union, and his presence in Montgomery only served to exacerbate the fear that Communists had infiltrated the MIA.
As fate would have it, Rustin and Worthy arrived in Montgomery on Tuesday, February 21, the day of the mass indictments. The MIA office was in chaos, Rustin asked to speak to King but was told that the MIA president was in Nashville, preaching at Fisk University. At this point no one in the MIA, other than King, had the faintest idea who Rustin was. Nevertheless, he soon talked his way into the office of King's close friend, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who after a brief conversation warned his visitor that Montgomery was a dangerous place for an unarmed black activist. Undaunted, Rustin found his way to E. D. Nixon, a longtime and seemingly fearless NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters activist, who became an instant ally after Rustin produced a letter of introduction from Randolph. For more than an hour, Nixon briefed Rustin on the boycotters' situation, which was obviously growing more perilous by the day. "They can bomb us out and they can kill us," he vowed, "but we are not going to give in." For a time, Rustin simply listened, but when Nixon confessed that he was not sure how the boycotters should respond to the mass indictments, the veteran activist promptly suggested the Gandhian option of voluntarily filling the jails. As Rustin laid out the rationale for nonviolent martyrdom, Nixon became intrigued, and the next morning became the first boycott leader to turn himself in. "Are you looking for me?" he asked a stunned sheriffs deputy. "Well here I am." Once the news of Nixon's arrest got out, there was a virtual stampede at the county courthouse, as scores of black leaders joined in the ritual self-sacrifice. Through it all Rustin was on the scene, dispensing advice and encouragement and basking in the knowledge that, although he had been in Montgomery for less than a day, he had already made a difference. Even Worthy, who had seen his friend in action many times before, was impressed, though he worried that this early triumph would feed Rustin's reckless spirit and ultimately lead to trouble.
Trouble was not long in coming. On Wednesday evening, after attending a rousing prayer meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Rustin decided to pay a visit to Jeanette Reece, who a week early had been frightened into dropping her legal challenge to segregated buses. To Rustin's surprise, Reece's home was under police surveillance. As he approached the front door, he was immediately accosted by gun-waving white policemen who demanded to know who he was. Rustin assured them that he just wanted to talk to Reece and that he meant her no harm. The officers continued to press him for some identification. On the verge of being arrested, he blurted out, "I am Bayard Rustin; I am here as a journalist working for Le Figaro and the Manchester Guardian." This seemed to satisfy the policemen, who granted him a brief interview with Reece, but the impromptu cover story would later come to haunt him.
Having narrowly escaped arrest, a somewhat chastened Rustin finally met Dr. King on Thursday morning, following the boycott leader's booking at the county courthouse. Surrounded by dozens of reporters and a throng of cheering supporters, King had little time to greet visitors, but at Nixon's urging he invited Rustin to a late-morning strategy session of the MIA executive committee. At the session, Rustin was impressed by King's intelligence, forthright leadership, and he was thrilled when the committee voted to turn the MIA's traditional mass meetings into prayer meetings. After King and his colleagues agreed that all future meetings would center around five prayers, including "a prayer for those who oppose us," he knew that he had underestimated his Southern hosts. In their own untutored way, he now realized, the boycotters had already begun to master the art of moral warfare. Although he still had doubts about the depth of the MIA's commitment to nonviolence, his original plan for a temporary suspension of the boycott no longer seemed realistic or necessary. As he told King later that afternoon, in all his travels, even in India and Africa, he had never witnessed anything comparable to the Montgomery movement. The boycotters' accomplishments were already remarkable. With a little help from the outside--with the proper publicity, with a disciplined and carefully constructed long-range strategy, and with enough funds to hold out against the die-hard segregationists--the Montgomery story could become a beacon for nonviolent activists everywhere. To this end, he and his friends at FOR were ready to help in any way they could. Though still a bit puzzled by this strange visitor from New York, King thanked Rustin for his gracious offer and invited him to the MIA's Thursday evening prayer meeting at the First Baptist Church.
What Rustin witnessed that evening confirmed his growing optimism. The meeting at the First Baptist was the first mass gathering since the arrests, and the spirit that poured out of the overflow crowd was like nothing Rustin had even seen. When the ninety indicted leaders gathered around the pulpit to open the meeting, the sanctuary exploded with emotion. As Rustin later described the scene:
Overnight these leaders had become symbols of courage. Women held their babies to touch them. The people stood in ovation. Television cameras ground away, as King was finally able to open the meeting. He began: "We are not struggling merely for the right of Negroes but for all the people of Montgomery, black and white. We are determined to make America a better place for all people. Ours is a non-violent protest. We pray God that no man shall use arms."
Near the close of the meeting, one of the speakers seized the moment to declare that Friday would be a "Double-P Day," a time for prayer and pilgrimage; the car pools would be suspended, private cars would be left at home, and everyone would walk. This gesture was almost too much for Rustin, who after years of lonely struggle could hardly believe what he was witnessing. Later that evening he called John Swomley in New York and breathlessly related what he had seen. The Montgomery movement had unlimited potential, he reported, but the boycotters were in desperate need of assistance--not only money for legal fees but also veteran activists who could teach them the finer points of nonviolence. In the short run, he would do what he could, but he urged Swomley to alert Muste and Randolph that a full mobilization of resources was in order.
True to his word, Rustin maintained a hectic schedule in the days that followed. On Friday and Saturday, he discussed strategy with the executive committee, sat in on a meeting of the car pool committee, survived an awkward interview with Robert Hughes, the executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, and even helped a group of volunteers design a new logo for the MIA. The climax of his whirlwind tour came on Sunday, when he spent most of the day with King. The day began with morning services at Dexter, where the young minister preached a moving sermon on the philosophy of nonviolence. "We are concerned not merely to win justice in the buses," King explained, "but rather to behave in a new and different way--to be non-violent so that we may remove injustice itself, both from society and from ourselves." Later, during a private dinner at the parsonage, King briefed Rustin on the boycott. Rustin listened attentively, but as the evening progressed he began to regale his hosts with tales of Harlem and the Northern underground. Coretta Scott King, who suddenly recalled that she had heard Rustin speak at Antioch College in the early 1950s, was utterly charmed, and her husband was captivated by his guest's sweeping vision of social justice. For several hours Rustin and the Kings discussed religion, pacifism, nonviolent resistance, and other moral imperatives, and by the end of the evening a deep philosophical and personal bond had been sealed. Despite periodic disagreements over strategy and a serious falling-out in the early 1960s, they would remain close friends until King's assassination in 1968.
Not everyone in the MIA was so enamored with the strange visitor from New York. Within hours of Rustin's arrival, there were complaints about "outside agitators" and rumors that subversives were trying to take over the Montgomery movement. Even those who dismissed these fears as groundless worried about the MIA's credibility and public image. Despite the recent eclipse of Senator Joseph McCarthy, fear of Communist infiltration was still rife in the United States, even among black Americans. No popular movement could afford the taint of communism, especially in a state where the Scottsboro case was a relatively recent memory. In Deep South communities like Montgomery, smooth-talking outsiders like Rustin were always a little suspect, but any chance he had of gaining broad acceptance ended when he posed as a European correspondent. When word got around that the editors of Le Figaro and the Manchester Guardian had never heard of him, Rustin's situation in Montgomery became precarious. Several of the national reporters covering the mass indictment story knew the true identity and background of both Rustin and Worthy, and the inevitable murmurings soon alerted the local press and police. Rustin was having the time of his life and was determined to hang on as long as he could, but by the end of his first week in town, there were enough cold stares and wary handshakes to convince him that his days in Montgomery were numbered. Reluctantly he informed Swomley and the FOR Staff that sooner or later he would need a replacement. Swomley, who had opposed Rustin's venture from the outset, needed no prodding to send one. Indeed, Glenn Smiley, FOR's national field secretary, was already on his way to Montgomery.
Smiley and Rustin were old friends and compatriots, but they were strikingly different in style and temperament. Though he was roughly the same age as Rustin and shared his colleague's pacifist faith, Smiley came from a radically different world. A soft-spoken Texan with a wry smile, he grew up in the cattle country west of Fort Worth, attended an all-white Methodist college in Abilene, and entered the ministry in his early twenties. A strong belief in pacifism and a commitment to the social gospel led him to the FOR in 1942, and for the next twelve years he worked as FOR's southwestern field secretary, operating mostly in southern California and Arizona.
Following Rustin's departure, Smiley worked tirelessly to expand FOR's role in the bus boycott. At first some boycott leaders were understandably suspicious of the inquisitive white stranger with the Texas twang, but it did not take him long to endear himself to the MIA staff. He grew especially close to King and Abernathy, whom he engaged in lengthy discussions of movement strategy and moral philosophy, and his wry humor and gentle prodding on behalf of nonviolence eventually disarmed even his toughest critics. Smiley, in turn, came to respect and admire his MIA hosts, though he often fretted about what he perceived as ideological naivete. Soon after his arrival in Montgomery, he informed the FOR office in New York that King was "a grand guy" who "had Gandhi in mind when this thing started." But he warned his superiors that King and the boycotters had a lot to learn about the moral strictures of nonviolence: "(King) is aware of the dangers to him inwardly, wants to do it right, but is too young and some of his close help is violent. King accepts, as an example, a body guard, and asks for permits for them to carry guns. This was denied by the police, but nevertheless, the place is an arsenal. King sees the inconsistency, but not enough. He believes and yet he doesn't believe. The whole movement is armed in a sense, and this is what I must convince him to see as the greatest evil. At first King was merely asked to be the spokesman of the movement, but as sometimes happens, he has really become the real leader and symbol of growing magnitude. If he can really be won to a faith in non-violence there is no end to what he can do." Despite this caveat, Smiley communicated an almost breathless enthusiasm for the boycott, which, thanks to his and Rustin's influence, was now officially known as a "non-violent protest" among MIA leaders. "The story is not a clear one, not nearly as clear as we would like," he admitted, "but potentially it is the most exciting thing I have ever touched."
The more Smiley saw of King and the boycotters, the more he was impressed, even awed, by their raw courage and spiritual strength. "Strange," he wrote Swomley on March 2. "Whites are scared stiff and negroes are calm as cucumbers. It is an experience I shall never forget. The mass meeting last night was like another world. 2500 people, laughing, crying, moaning, shouting, singing ... Not once was there an expression of hatred towards whites, and the ovation I received when I talked of Gandhi, his campaign, and then of the cross, was tremendous. They want to do the will of God, and they are sure this is the will of God."
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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