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Archive for the ‘Mohandas Gandhi’ Category

Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.

Nathuram-Godse_GettyImage

Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.

Gandhi_in_Noakhali,_1946

Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.

 

[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]

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On the evening of 30 January 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, known the world over as the “Mahatma” and in India as “Bapu”, was assassinated as he walked towards the prayer ground at Birla House.  Nathuram Godse, a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Pune, fired three bullets from a revolver and Gandhi died instantly.  Godse was wrestled to the ground by a couple of onlookers; but he had no intention of escaping, and was indeed keen that he should be apprehended alive and have his say in court.  This was one of the many things that Godse learned from Gandhi, for whom he had a curious admixture of reverence and hatred:  the courtroom can be commanded to great advantage by the accused, and the audience might even be swayed into believing that the accused had just cause.

JohnKeaneExperimentsWithTruth
John Keane, “Experiments with Truth” (1996), oil and collage on canvas.  Source:  http://www.johnkeaneart.com/index.php/welcome/cat/31/2/2

Nathuram Godse was no doubt assisted in his plans by a motley group of men who had various reasons for harboring a real grudge against Gandhi.  The Government of India insisted that there had been a conspiracy to murder the “Father of the Nation” and Vinayak Savarkar was thought to have been the brains behind the conspiracy.  But Godse remained unequivocally clear to the end of his life that he alone bore responsibility for Gandhi’s death.  Godse did nothing to exculpate himself and sought to shift the blame from others who also stood accused of having conspired to murder Gandhi.  Some of the supposed conspirators were released for lack of evidence, among them Savarkar; a few others, including Nathuram’s younger brother Gopal, were handed stiff prison terms; and Nathuram and Narayan Apte were sent to the gallows.

The indubitable fact, of course, is that Nathuram Godse alone pulled the trigger.  He was the sole assassin.  If that is the case, the alert reader might wonder why the title of the piece adverts to Gandhi’s “assassins”.  In speaking of his assassins, I do not intend to revisit the debate, which persisted for a very long time, about the supposed conspiracy that felled Gandhi.   There can be little doubt that Savarkar, who had a long and unsavory history of instrumentalizing other men in the pursuit of his own political objectives, was something of an ideological bulwark for Nathuram and others of his ilk.  Justice Jivanlal Kapur, who headed a one-man commission in 1966 to inquire into Gandhi’s assassination following some disclosures that various government officials may have been negligent in safeguarding Gandhi’s life, conducted an extensive probe and issued a lengthy report in 1969 where he stated that the facts that had come to his attention “taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

I would like to suggest both that Nathuram Godse was fundamentally right in accepting sole culpability for Gandhi’s death and that Justice Kapur underestimated the degree to which Gandhi’s death was, in the words of his biographer Robert Payne, a “permissive assassination”.  The word ‘conspiracy’ is not particularly conducive to a discussion which would allow us to understand the circumstances which, as it were, conspired to lead to Gandhi’s death and which apparently make it necessary to murder Gandhi all over again.  The Government of India was drawing upon the colonial apparatus of law and a juridical conception of “conspiracy” when it drew up charges against Savarkar, the Godse brothers, and others, and the limitations of this exercise are all too apparent when we consider that India, as a nation, is far from being done with Gandhi.  We must thus begin with this inexorable fact:  men such as Gandhi have to be killed repeatedly. A cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), appears to have understood this well:  a seated Gandhi looks up to the slain civil rights leader and remarks, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

King&GandhiAssassinationsChicagoSun-Times

Let us begin, however, with the idea of a “permissive assassination”.  India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union.  Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, and his critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power.  Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Nathuram pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died a moment not too soon.  When the Government cast the murder as a “conspiracy” in the narrow legal sense, they did not of course mean to implicate the bureaucrats and modernizing elites who, viewing Gandhi as expendable, had secretly conspired to let him die.

NathuramGodseBust

A 32-inch bust of Nathuram Godse installed in the Daulatgang office of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, central India.  Source:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/hindu-mahasabha-sets-up-nathuram-godse-mahatma-gandhis-assassin-temple-kicks-up-row-4939797/

If the Bengal Renaissance is, as someone I knew once quipped, the longest continuing renaissance in the world, Gandhi’s assassination seems to have unfolded over seven decades and remains one long unremitting exercise in exorcising him.  In a piece I published a decade ago, I pointed out that every constituency in India—Marxists, Hindu nationalists, rationalists, feminists, Dalits, modernizers, militarists, and the myriad worshippers at the altar of science, development, progress, and the nation-state—“loves to hate” Gandhi.  Notwithstanding all the utterly predictable homilies that issue forth from the mouths of politicians, it is amply clear that very few in the Indian government or the wider middle class have any use for him.  To be sure, his name still constitutes a form of cultural capital, and propriety and national respect alike dictate that his name should be held up with reverence in the presence of foreign dignitaries.  Most of Gandhi’s fellow Gujaratis, in and out of India, have largely effaced him from their worldview.  The guardians of his own Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, from where Gandhi set out on the Salt March, shut close the doors of the ashram in the face of the Muslim refugees seeking protection from the hoodlums baying for their blood in the killings of 2002.

Much more may be written about the rehabilitation of both Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse over the last decade or two, particularly in the last few years since the BJP has become the dominant force in Indian politics.  A portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament in 2003 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP was in power, and it is scarcely surprising that Narendra Modi should have paid his homage to Savarkar on many occasions, not only after assuming the office of the Prime Minister.

ModiSalutingSavarkar

Tribute being paid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Savarkar on his birth anniversary in the Indian Parliament.  Source:  https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140529/jsp/nation/story_18393712.jsp

ModiPayingObeisanceToSavarkar
Narendra Modi paying homage to Savarkar on 26 February 2013.  Source:  https://www.narendramodi.in/cm-pays-tributes-to-veer-savarkar-on-his-punya-tithi-5126

In 2015, the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization to which both Savarkar and Nathuram swore their allegiance, announced plans to install busts and statues of Nathuram in Hindu temples across north and western India. Though their plans to build temples in honor of Godse have thus far not materialized, in the central Indian city of Gwalior the Mahasabha has installed a bust of Godse at their office and described it as the foundation stone of a temple which has been named ‘Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir’ [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Whatever opprobrium may still be attached in some measure to celebrating Nathuram Godse as a martyr, it is unquestionably the case that the circumstances which made possible a “permissive assassination” have now produced widespread agreement with the views embraced by Nathuram.

HutatmaNathuramGodseMandir

Hindu Mahasabha Bhavan, Gwalior:  Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/gwalior-now-has-a-temple-of-mahatma-gandhi-s-killer-nathuram-godse-why-on-earth-was-it-needed-333801.html

Yet, however much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi also continues to surface in the most unexpected ways.  He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of many of India’s most significant ecological movements, from Chipko to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval.  Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the ‘real’ Gandhi hidden from history.  The hagiographic representation of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name in late 1982 produced in reaction one such wave of supposed exposés of the Gandhi that, in the phrase of one of his most staunch detractors, Richard Grenier, “no one knows”.  We were then led into believing that Gandhi was a fiend who was patriarchal, a sexual puritan, and a crazy luddite; many others have over the decades added to that picture, describing Gandhi as a racist and particularly contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of reason, a foe of his fellow Hindus (to some) and a Hindu wolf in sheep’s clothing (to others), even a ‘friend of Hitler’.  (Gandhi authored two short very short letters to Hitler, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient, urging him to renounce violence.)

Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear:  we heard some years ago of the Gandhian moment in Iran’s Green Revolution and recently dissidents in Turkey have described themselves as inspired largely by him.  There is the Gandhi that appears on the Separation Wall and I daresay that there is the ‘little Gandhi’ that has been thrown up by every revolution over the last few decades.  The Gandhi of the shining bald head, the pair of round spectacles, the timepiece, the walking stick, the sandals, the pet goat, and the Mickey Mouse ears has become an ineradicable part of the national imaginary in India.  Gandhi is everywhere, in every act of nonviolence and, more significantly, every act of violence—a spectral presence to remind us of the supreme importance of the ethical life.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968.  Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age:  the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle.  King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt.  This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum:  there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.

King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years.  I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others.  Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles.  He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.

 

Lawson&King

Rev. James Lawson discusses his phone call inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, the meeting at his church on April 3 and plans to go forward with a march with or without the court injunction in place.   Copyright:  Jeff McAdory/The Commercial Appeal.  Source: http://www.commercialappeal.com/videos/news/2017/01/12/rev.-james-lawson-recalls-inviting-martin-luther-king-jr.-memphis/96495746/

What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett.  The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited.  I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.

Vinay:              At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960.  I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.

Rev. Lawson:   I think that’s reading into it.

Vinay:              You think it’s reading into it?

Rev. Lawson:   It’s also something else.  Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.

Vinay:              Can you say more?

Rev. Lawson:   How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.

Vinay:              Was he at that time?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, absolutely.

Vinay:              Already? In early 1960?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, yes.

Vinay:              Undisputedly so.

Rev. Lawson:   Undisputedly so.  I watched it.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be.  Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world.  He was not the chosen one.  I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62.  The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way.  They said it then.

Vinay:              Yes.

Rev. Lawson:   They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way.  King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work.  They rejected that idea, and said no to that.

It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC].  Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible.  That’s excluded from these [academic] books.  Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism.  It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed.  It does not arrive with tactics in place.

Vinay:              Yes, it’s a process.

Rev. Lawson:   It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new.  We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds.  I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.

Vinay:              I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.

Rev. Lawson:   In Atlanta.

Vinay:              In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.

Rev. Lawson:   What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself.  That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’

Why?  Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together.  They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta.  His father is a member of that group.  King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to.  Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time.  They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta.  King is hesitant.  He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.

King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership.  That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta.  Now the students do not understand that.  I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.

King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that.  Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that.  Others close to him had no about that.  He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.

Vinay:              Yes, all of them, right.

Rev. Lawson:   Now none of that is in these books.

Vinay:              Yeah.  Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who.  Mohandas.

Rev. Lawson:   Yes.  Mohandas K.

Vinay:              Gandhi, yes.  Mohandas K.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right.

Vinay:              He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.

Rev. Lawson:   He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.

Vinay:              Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.

Rev. Lawson:   Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is.  Exactly.  You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies.  It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think.  In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around.  You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.

Vinay:              Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments.  Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia.  Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              Right yeah.  It’s locally started, locally initiated.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.

Rev. Lawson:   By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany.   I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.

Vinay:              Right.

Rev. Lawson:   He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.

Vinay:              Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following.  It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this.  Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany.  The perspective then generally amounts to the following.

Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany.  Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India.  In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here.  This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …

Pritchett&King

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested by Albany’s Chief of Police, Laurie Pritchett, after praying at City Hall, on July 27, 1962.  Source:  AP Photo.

 

Rev. Lawson:   Yes, I know the story.

Vinay:              That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story.  The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably.  Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there.  Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?

Pritchett&King2

Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett & Martin Luther King, Jr.  Source:

Rev. Lawson:   Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff.  It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling.  When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.

There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves.  How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked.   One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard.  Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.”  He said that boldly years ago to me.

King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure.  Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable.  I don’t know them myself.  King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.

 

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Los Angeles:  October 2nd, 2017

Today, October 2nd, is designated by the United Nations as the “International Day of Non-Violence.” A General Assembly resolution to this effect was passed in 2007, with the hope that a day so designated would be an occasion to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness” throughout the world.  The choice of October 2nd was, of course, no accident:  the day marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the principal architect of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance.

Today, October 2nd, I woke up like millions of others to the news that a gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, 64 years of age, had positioned himself in a room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel from where, on the night of October 1st, he fired dozens of rounds of bullets from an automatic rifle on thousands of people attending a country music concert before turning the gun on himself and preventing his capture by the police outside his door.  When the firing ceased, at least 50 people had been killed; another 500 had been wounded.  The death toll, some 20 hours later, now stands at 59.

This is how America celebrates the international day of non-violence.  Oh, yes, it does—loud and unmistakably clear.  I can already hear the din of noises disturbed by what they will characterize as a caricature of this nation.  I can hear them saying that what Paddock did is not what the United States is about.  There will be the furious hashtag messaging — #thisisnotus – and thousands of others will point to the first responders, to those who have graciously given blood to the hundreds now lying on surgery tables, and even more so to those who gallantly even chivalrously laid down their lives—such as the young 29-year old man who had been married for just a year, shielded his wife’s body with his own, and so took the bullets that spent his life—as representing the real story of America.  They are right:  that is the story of America, but not uniquely so:  there are such decent and good people everywhere.

The story of America is, however, uniquely a story of violence in a certain idiom.  There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.  From thence we move on to slavery and to wars of extermination, to the saturation bombing of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and of course to the regime of guns.  Some others have enumerated in detail the many catastrophes that I have omitted which ensued worldwide in the wake of American foreign policy; yet others have hinted at the metaphysical foundations of American violence.  The indubitable fact remains that the United States is, in this respect as in so many others, an anomaly on the world stage—even as it, of course, claims leadership of that mystical entity which has become a license to police the world, that thing called “the international community”.  India was long under British rule; the United States is under the rule of guns.

The wounded are still being attended to but the so-called “debate” over gun control laws has already led to the firing of missives from various parties.  We will doubtless hear an argument fit only for imbeciles, namely that guns do not kill, people do:  by this logic, those who can afford to keep tanks to protect themselves from drones or large mobs of people should be allowed to do so, since tanks do not kill people and only gunners do.  A veritable arsenal was found in Paddock’s hotel room:  15-20 firearms have been mentioned in media reports, and around the same number of firearms have been recovered from his residence.  I doubt if in the entire city of Osaka, to take one illustration, there are as many firearms as Paddock had stuffed in suitcases that he brought to his hotel room.  (Osaka city has a population of around 2.7 million; the greater metro area is home to about 20 million people.)

The precise nature of his firearms is now being discussed:  should they be characterized as machine guns, assault rifles, automatic or semi-automatic rifles?  Most if not all of the assault weapons in Paddock’s room had a telescope.  It appears that only a few days ago he purchased three rifles, and passed a background check.  But of course: should one have expected otherwise?  How many rifles should a man be allowed to purchase?  Should background checks be more rigorous?  What if a killer moves from a state where firearms are regulated “tightly” to one where open carry policies are followed?  What does one do when the assassin is a “lone wolf”?  What if, like many a Nazi, he goes about the business of killing during the day, gassing a few people here and there, machine-gunning others for practice, before returning home in the evening to his wife and children and reading the Bible to his children before putting them to bed?  These “debates”, as they are called, will go on—assuredly, as  night follows day.  Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to vote on a bill which would remove a tax on gun silencers.  Perhaps, perhaps, passage of the bill will be derailed for a few days, or weeks, out of “respect” for the victims of the shooting:  par for the course.  And then of course it will pass:  more par for the course.

In a previous blog, then occasioned by a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, I called for having a law passed that would lead to the abolishment of the NRA and having it declared a criminal organization.  It is necessary only to gesture at the arguments that I then advanced at some length.  There are countries such as Australia, which historically has shared a culture of addiction to guns and violence with the US, where gun buy back provisions have fundamentally removed firearms from the public domain.  Of course, the scale of any such measure in the US would be immensely different, considering that 300 million firearms are in private hands:  but if gun violence were viewed as a public health hazard, akin let’s say to the poisoning of the water supply of all major cities in the country, it would receive the attention it requires. It matters not a jot whether there are “genuine hunters”, which is another anomaly, and even less whether fidelity to an arcane provision of the United States Constitution should hold millions of people hostage to a wretched conception of ‘American freedoms’.  Adherents of the 2nd Amendment might suitably be given an extended course on “how to read a text”.

Paddock took at least fifty-nine lives.  But what he has done on the day of nonviolence is to eviscerate the voices of those who have resolutely stood for nonviolence, in word, deed, or thought.  He ensured that October 2nd would not be remembered as a day dedicated to nonviolence, and that the voice of Gandhi would be drowned out by a cascade of bullets and the cacophony of a mindless debate over something that Americans call “gun control”.  So, in that respect, the crime of Paddock is much greater—but the crime is not solely his.  He only pulled the trigger; he is only an assassin of ideas and ideals acting at the behest of others, whether those be members of the NRA, the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of guns and firearms, the politicians who extend their patronage to the gun lobby, and the myriad others who have turned America into a spectacle of murderous idiocy for the world to behold.

At the end of the day, then, we should let Gandhi speak. His most famous expressions have now been mass marketed, blanketed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, car stickers, billboards, and much of the rest of the paraphernalia of modern life.  But, at this juncture, even a clichéd aphorism from Gandhi stands forth as a salutary aphorism on how nonviolence alone can call us to the ethical life:

An eye for an eye only ends up

making the whole world blind.

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Journeys in the Deep South IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VII

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black man in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and then at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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Journeys in the Deep South I – A Birthday Tribute, September 22, to Reverend James M. Lawson

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IV

 

Here I am at long last, at the site of what can likely be described as the first workshop of nonviolence in Jim Crow South.  The attempt to desegregate lunch counters was, of course, far from being the first step in the long road to gain equal rights for black people in the US during the course of what is now characterized as the Civil Rights Movement.  It had been preceded by the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and, in turn, concerted struggles to integrate transportation services in a large number of cities in the southern states.  The Nashville Sit-ins, long in the planning, were not even the first such act of nonviolent resistance.  When over a hundred students from Nashville’s historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk sat down in segregated lunch counters on 10 February 1960 in open defiance of the law, they had already been preceded by four black students who had initiated the same action at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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A plaque that commemorates the site of the Nashville Sit-ins, on Fifth Avenue.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Nevertheless, what transpired in Nashville marks an extraordinary moment in the history of nonviolent resistance in the United States:  to reiterate, it is here that we can justly speak of the first workshop of nonviolence in the deeply segregated South.  The architect of this movement was the Reverend James M. Lawson, on whom I expect to lavish many entries in the weeks and months ahead.  Reverend Lawson, who is 89 years old today, had spent a long stint in India during the 1950s—three years, from 1953 to 1956, as a Methodist minister in Nagpur, to be precise.  Though the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were all steeped in the writings of Gandhi, Lawson was the only principal figure to have lived in India—an assignment that the young clergyman accepted readily since, as he thought, it would give him an opportunity to study at first hand the life of Gandhi and understand how he had forged a movement of mass nonviolent resistance in India.

When the Montgomery bus boycott was first organized, Lawson was still in India; he returned to the US a year later and shortly thereafter, as he has put it me on more than one occasion, “shook hands with Martin”.  Lawson brought to the movement a detailed knowledge of the strategies of nonviolent resistance deployed by Gandhi that no one else, possibly barring Bayard Rustin, could claim.  In the Deep South, the iron law of segregation prevailed in every domain of life and in every visage of social relations between the races.  The landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) had signaled the intent of civil rights activists to break the barriers of segregation, but the legislatures of the southern states had effectively adopted the stance attributed to President Andrew Johnson in the celebrated case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832) where the Court had ruled that the Federal Government had sole jurisdiction in dealing with Indian (ie, Native American) nations:  “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”  If progress in desegregating schools was thus stalled, in other domains of public life the Brown decision had barely scratched the surface.

In 1958, then, Lawson set upon a course of action that would alter the face of the Civil Rights Movement.  He was determined to integrate lunch counters:  not only was the segregation pervasive here, but Lawson would have understood that who one eats with and who one shares one’s bread with are among the most significant markers of social existence.  The lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store was the most visible face of segregation in a public space.  Lawson had arrived in Nashville in 1958, enrolling as a student in the Master’s program at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University.  But he was already one of the leaders of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and committed to nonviolent activism.  Nashville was also home to several universities—not just Vanderbilt, but historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk, Tennessee State University, and the American Baptist College (Seminary).

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Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee:  this “Gothically imposing structure” is less than 300 meters from Clark Memorial Church, and it is from Fisk, among other universities, that black students were drawn to the Reverend Lawson and the Civil Rights Movement.  Photo: Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In September 1958, Lawson gathered students around him and commenced what would become a year-long workshop in nonviolent civil action and resistance.  The red-brick Clark Memorial Methodist Church, at 14th Avenue North, less than 300 meters from Fisk University, would become the nursery where an entire generation of activists—Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, to mention only some of those who would become prominent in the civil rights movement and in American public life—were trained by Lawson to live out the principles of nonviolent resistance.

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Clark Memorial Methodist Church, 1014 Fourteenth Avenue North, Nashville.  It is in mainly in the basement of this church that the Rev. Lawson conducted his famous workshops in nonviolent resistance.  “Clark Memorial”, wrote John Lewis in his memoir of 1998, “is still there today, a modest redbrick chapel two blocks away from the Gothically imposing structures of Fisk. There are no plaques, no monuments, nothing to suggest that anything historic happened there.  It’s just a little church on a sleepy street . . .  But from the autumn of 1958 into the following fall, that little building played a major role in educating, preparing and shaping a group of young men and women who would lead the way for years to come in the nonviolent struggle for civil rights in America.”  (Walking with the Wind, p. 76). Photo:  Vinay Lal.

He assigned students, or might one say his protégés, readings from Gandhi, Thoreau, Lao-Tzu, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who would author the influential Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), a work that is also said to have been important to the thinking of Barack Obama.  John Lewis, the long-time Congressman from Georgia who is Lawson’s most celebrated protégé, has furnished a reasonably long description in Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) of Lawson’s workshop; as he put it, “We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa … to satyagraha—literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of nonviolent civil disobedience, of active pacifism” (p. 76).

Lawson taught his students how to take the blows of injustice upon their own shoulders and, with forbearance, humility, and patience, transform the perpetrators of violence; more precisely, he had them enact, time and again, the roles of both violent segregationists and nonviolent civil resisters at lunch counters.  A group of black people would be seated at lunch counters intended for white people; another group of white men would sneer and spit at them, empty bottles of ketchup and mustard on their heads, throw punches at them, and kick them while they writhed in pain on the ground.  Lawson trained his students not only to forgo any retaliation, but to endure whatever insults the segregationists threw their way.  “Back in that fall of ‘58”, Lewis would reminiscence in his memoir, “we were just kids, totally mesmerized by the torrent of energy and ideas and inspiration washing over us every Tuesday night in those Jim Lawson workshops” (p. 80).

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The reverse side of the plaque.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

Malcolm X, perhaps the most significant (and in his own way mesmerizing) detractor of nonviolent resistance in his days, had quite a few cynical things to say about the sit-ins.  We’ve done plenty of sitting around, he told a captive audience in his famous “The Bullet or the Ballot” speech.  Malcolm could be compelling, even enthralling, but it is his very seductiveness of which we should be wary.  Meanwhile, nearly sixty years later, the Reverend James Lawson is still carrying out workshops in nonviolent resistance in Los Angeles, which he adopted as home over forty years ago.  His very life, one might say, is an object lesson on the meaning of fortitude and patience as part of the grammar of a life steeped in the ethos of nonviolence.

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The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics III

Dick Gregory passed away at the age of 84 on August 19 in Washington, DC.  I never had the good fortune to meet him; now, in retrospect, I wish I had taken the trouble to seek him out.   But why do I even characterize it as “trouble”?  Somehow I am, in such situations, always reminded of what Ezra Pound purportedly told T S Eliot when the latter had first come to meet the older poet, ‘You have an obligation to meet the great men of your times.”  Or at least that is my recollection of how one of my teachers, Professor Hugh Kenner, narrated the meeting between the two poets.

I first heard of Dick Gregory, effectively the first black man to break the racial barrier at comedy clubs, in the early 1980s.  The “Troubles”, as they were called, in Northern Ireland were at their height; and among those whose names was constantly in the news was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on the 66th day of a hunger strike in protest against prison conditions in Her Majesty’s Prisons and in quest of the recognition that as a political prisoner he could not be treated as a common criminal.  Bobby Sands, of course, never recognized the legitimacy of the division of Ireland and the English occupation of Northern Ireland.

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Dick Gregory at Ohio University, Feb 1968.

It is around this time that there was in the American press frequent mention of Dick Gregory, who, it turns out, engaged frequently in political fasts.  Much like Gandhi, Gregory disavowed the word ‘hunger strike’; he would have understood hunger striking as something rather different from fasting, which, whatever its political implications, was also seen as a form of spiritual, moral, and bodily cleansing.  This distinction is scarcely understood, and almost never acknowledged in public commentary; it is also, not surprisingly, lost on the writer of Gregory’s obituary in the New York Times, who has this to say:  “There seemed few causes he would not embrace.  He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hungers strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.”

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Dick Gregory with Muhammad Ali.

Francis Watson once described Gandhi as “Master of the Fast”. Whether the same can be said of Dick Gregory I do not know. When Gandhi fasted in the public domain, it was an event. George Orwell was not the only to marvel at the fact that when Gandhi fasted, the entire country appeared to come to a standstill. Gregory’s fasts were noted, sometimes barely so.  There are reports in the American media, from time to time, of “hunger strikes” waged by political prisoners, immigrants detailed in unhealthy conditions, and political activists. In the American political landscape, however, it has been largely activist priests (such as the Berrigan brothers) from the Catholic Church, social workers such as the remarkable Dorothy Day (who was born into a nominally Christian, or rather Episcopalian, family before converting to Catholicism), or political activists and labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez, who took recourse to fasting.

Much has been made, justly, of Gregory’s extraordinary gift for political humor and his indefatigable fight to secure the rights not just of African Americans but all those who have suffered injustice. I shall turn to this shortly; but, perhaps even more arrestingly, what is nearly singular about Dick Gregory is that he is quite likely the only major African American figure from the period of the civil rights movement and beyond who recognized fasting as part of the arsenal of nonviolent resistance.  Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Lawson, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, among others, African Americans offered concerted nonviolent resistance; and so, as a matter of course, they filled the jails, led boycotts, took part in strikes, used the power of the word, and shamed, or tried to shame, their oppressors into relinquishing their privileges, listening to their conscience, and accepting the black person on an equal footing.  But American Civil Rights leaders never fasted; indeed, fasting was never part of their political lexicon.  One could say, without implying any moral import, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the most well-known face of the movement, even had a weakness for food.

Dick Gregory was thus virtually alone among the most recognized African American political activists who took recourse to fasting.  His resort to fasting made him publicly known; however, fasting remained fundamentally alien to American political traditions, except, as I have noted, among those who took their inspiration from the Catholic tradition.  One hopes that Gregory’s unique place in the American political tradition, at least in this respect, will receive much greater recognition in the years ahead.

Gregory’s obituaries, notably in the New York Times, the Guardian (London), and the Washington Post, certainly do justice to his gift with words, his incisive political humor and wit, and the resilience that carried Gregory through hard times, from his birth under conditions of poverty to the fact that his increasing activism came at a steep price for himself and his family.  The articles detail at some length how he came to conquer the comedy club scene, particularly after a break at Chicago’s Playboy Club in January 1961, and this at a time when black comedians were shut out of the lucrative club scene.  This history, therefore, need not be rehearsed.  But what stands out is the fact that, unlike modern-day comedians, whose routines are not merely laced with obscenities but are deadeningly juvenile and colossally repetitive, Dick Gregory throughout remained politically engaging and inventive.  On the subject of segregation, who else but Dick Gregory could say this:  “Segregation is not all bad.  Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”  Even as he joined others in the classic demonstrations and marches that came to signify the Civil Rights movement, he retained a certain perspective that one might expect from a more distant observer.  Thus, as a way of suggesting that outcomes were unpredictable, however keen and meticulous the planning, Gregory once remarked:  “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months.  When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”

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Dick and Lillian Gregory; they married in 1959.  She survives him.

So rich a life, so much to write about.  He had his weaknesses, among them a penchant for conspiracy theories.  One can forgive this weakness in any person of African descent, whether in Africa, Haiti, the US, the British Caribbean, or elsewhere; the whole world must seem at times to them to have conspired against them.  And yet Gregory was magnificently funny.  One only hopes that his life will not be reduced to another morality tale about ‘an American life’ and the ‘greatness of America’.  A careless reading of his life might suggest precisely this.  “Where else in the world but America”, he remarked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week for just talking about it?”  Oh, yes, I can hear all those who can’t detect the obvious note of humor screeching about the great singularity of ‘the American dream’.  One might point to Gregory’s scathing indictment in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, of the United States as the “most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet.”  But this dénouement would be less characteristic of Dick Gregory than his response to being honored with the key to the city of St. Louis by its mayor and then being denied a hotel room in his hometown:  “They gave me the key to the city and then they changed all the locks.”

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