In February of 1949, a group of stevedores gathered under a mango tree in the Brazilian port of Salvador to prepare for carnival celebrations. They needed a theme for their contingent. Searching far and wide, the mostly Afro-Brazilian workers settled on an extravagant international gesture. The Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi had been assassinated almost exactly a year earlier. Gandhi’s struggles against political and economical injustice resonated with men who themselves experienced racial oppression in a deeply unequal society. In his memory and in honor of his commitment to nonviolence, the stevedores named their group Filhos de Gandhi—“Sons of Gandhi.” The stevedores could not have known then that nearly 70 years later, their group would be the biggest and most legendary block in Salvador’s carnival.
Their choice of theme wasn’t whimsical, but in keeping with a zeitgeist that seems remote to us now. The 20th century may be defined in the West by the World Wars and the Cold War, but for much of the rest of the planet it was the age of decolonization, when old structures of (often racial) domination and power gave way to new states, new nations, and new politics. Developments in one corner of the Global South reverberated continents away, forging bonds of sympathy and engagement. When India won independence from the British in 1947, it inspired people across Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
The civil-rights movement in the United States was inextricable from this wider international context. When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, he was flanked by men wearing the distinctive boat-shaped “Gandhi caps,” popularized both by activists of the Indian National Congress (Gandhi’s party) and by freedom fighters in Ghana during their respective struggles against the British. Those paper hats were indicative of a larger truth; the campaign against segregation and Jim Crow was always embedded in a larger global battle against white supremacy. Beyond being a chapter in an American story, the civil-rights movement was another episode in the rebelling of colonized peoples around the world.
This was clear to black American communists like Harry Haywood as early as the 1930s. “The Negro question in the United States must be conceived as part of the national colonial problem,” he wrote, “or, in other words, it is part of the general worldwide problem of freedom of the oppressed and dependent peoples from the shackles of imperialism.”
But you didn’t need to be an ardent communist to sense that the liberation of black people in the United States was linked to struggles elsewhere. Anti-colonial efforts abroad, particularly in India, inspired Martin Luther King Jr. “While the Montgomery bus boycott was going on,” he wrote in 1959, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” The reverend had come to know of Gandhi’s principles and writings through networks of Gandhians in the United States. In Gandhi’s moral commitment to nonviolence, King found both a powerful political tactic and an analogue for “Christian love,” a way to weaponize the highest virtue of his faith. “Christ showed us the way,” King said, “and Gandhi in India showed it could work.”
After the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, King travelled to Ghana in 1957 to attend the fledgling country’s independence ceremony and meet another disciple of Gandhi’s, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah’s campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience had led to Ghana becoming the first sub-Saharan African nation to free itself from European colonialism; boycotts and other moves pressured the British to leave the Gold Coast. The visit crystallized in King’s mind the scale and possibilities of the struggle he was immersed in. “Both segregation in America and colonialism in Africa were based on the same thing,” he observed, “white supremacy and contempt for life.” While in Ghana, King met Richard Nixon, then the U.S. vice president, and told him flatly, “I want you to come visit us down in Alabama where we are seeking the same kind of freedom the Gold Coast is celebrating.” In a radio interview, King insisted that Ghana’s liberation offered tremendous hope. “The event, the birth of this nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world,” he said. “I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions—not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America. … It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice.”
A few years later in 1959, King and his wife traveled to India and went on a frenetic tour of the country. He was pleased that Indians were familiar with events in Alabama. “They praised our experiment with nonviolent resistance technique at Montgomery,” he wrote. “They seem to look upon it as an outstanding example of the possibilities of its use in Western civilization. To them as to me, it also suggests that nonviolent resistance when planned and positive in action can work effectively even under totalitarian regimes.”
As much as he was enamored with the “soul” of India, King was fairly clear-eyed in his travels around the country. He was struck by the poverty and landlessness bequeathed to India by the British. He astutely drew a parallel between the workings of race in America with the persistence of caste in India, and praised the Indian government and constitution for legislating against caste discrimination. He commended Gandhi’s practice of guiding “untouchables” into the holy sanctum of temples, which had been barred to them for centuries. “To equal that,” King suggested, “President Eisenhower would take a Negro child by the hand and lead her into Central High School in Little Rock.”
King remained both engaged in freedom movements overseas and aware that his efforts in the United States were part of a wider struggle. “The large majority of the human race is nonwhite, yet it is the large majority that lives in hideous poverty,” he said in 1965. He liaised with Zambian freedom fighters. En route to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize, he stopped in London to call for economic sanctions against South Africa.
In all this committed activity, one can hear echoes of Gandhi’s conviction in the larger purpose of his work in India. “My ambition is much higher than independence,” Gandhi wrote in 1928. “Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation.” The movements that sped decolonization around the world were often built on great acts of border-crossing imagination. Both Gandhi and King understood that to combat vast structures of power and domination one needed a comparably vast sense of moral purpose. Their striving universalism was remarkable for emerging in the face of forces that aimed to confine and restrict Indian and black lives.
It’s fitting that in his last speech before being killed in Memphis in 1968, King sketched the global contours of his fateful political moment. “Something is happening in our world,” he said. “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”