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  • Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Interfaith Cooperation

    in the Civil Rights Movement

    By Emily Higgs

  • Many scholars who study religious tolerance emphasize the need to reach beyond passive tolerance and toward productive engagement between religious groups. The collaborative efforts of faith groups and their leaders during the American civil rights movement exemplify this kind of productive and pluralistic engagement. Many religious leaders and traditions were involved in the mass social movement, making it truly interfaith.

    Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist, was inspired to pursue nonviolent resistance by a leader outside of his own religious tradition: Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. As a seminary student, King was introduced to Gandhi’s satyagraha (soul force) philosophy and its practices of nonviolence. In the 1950s, King was further influenced by the Quaker nonviolence philosophies of his adviser, Bayard Rustin. In 1959, with assistance from the Quaker group The American Friends Service Committee, King traveled to India to meet with people continuing Gandhi’s work. King was inspired by their methods of nonviolence, and his experience with their traditions shaped the rest of his life. By finding common ground between Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism, Rustin’s Quaker pacifism, and his own interpretation of Christianity, King was able to use these philosophies of nonviolence and passive resistance to amplify his efforts in the civil rights movement.  

    King also readily worked with leaders of other faiths. One well-known partnership was with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, a Polish-American rabbi and professor of religion at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, marched arm in arm with King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Heschel believed the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a call to action for social justice, particularly pertaining to civil rights and the plight of African-Americans, and Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, were widely involved in the civil rights movement. “Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision, and a way,” Heschel said when introducing the pastor and activist to a convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. “I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way.” The relationship between Heschel and King—and their faith traditions—during the civil rights movement is representative of heartfelt empathy and productive collaboration.

    While many civil rights leaders attributed their involvement in the movement to their belief in a religion dedicated to addressing the social conditions of the oppressed, others were motivated by nonreligious philosophical traditions. A. Phillip Randolph was an atheist, humanist, and prominent labor leader who organized the March on Washington with Rustin. He had previously proposed a March on Washington with Rustin and Christian pacifist A.J. Muste, and he continued to work with religious leaders on many projects. For example, Randolph founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1950 along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

    With their collaborative efforts, these leaders showed what could be accomplished through interreligious cooperation and respect for other faith traditions. Working alongside these leaders to integrate various motivations for nonviolent activism was the Rev. James Lawson, whom King called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” As a Methodist missionary in India for three years, Lawson was deeply influenced by the philosophy and techniques of nonviolent resistance developed by Gandhi and his followers. On November 3, Lawson will speak about “Recovering a Vision of Gandhi, and his Meaning for the 21st Century” at Riverside United Methodist Church at 7 p.m. This event is part of the Menil Collection’s exhibition titled Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence. The Boniuk Institute invites you to attend the talk to celebrate the diverse religious traditions that impacted the civil rights movement.

    Learn more about the event here.


  • Dr
  • Reverend James Lawson