Sanjali Mitra
Postgraduate in International Studies and
History from Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore
Research Intern at O.P.Jindal Global University, Haryana.
Email id-


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was proclaimed by the London Times as “the most influential figure India has produced for generations” (“Mr. Gandhi”), after his assassination on January 30, 1948. Gandhi was the forerunner in the struggle for independence against the colonial rule by using non- violent means as well as he was a leading voice against racism in South Africa. A testament to the revolutionary power of non- violence, the Gandhian philosophy directly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who was of the view that the Gandhian ideology was “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”. “TO OTHER COUNTRIES I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.” quoted Martin Luther King Jr. (Kumar, 2017).


Although King never could personally meet Gandhi, mentors during his college years introduced him to the value of Gandhi’s experiments with truth. He was introduced to Gandhian works when he was a student at Morehouse College, by the then college President Benjamin Mays. After more deep analysis of Gandhi in the Crozer Theological Seminary (1948), King detailed Gandhi as “individuals who greatly reveal the working of the Spirit of God”. (Gandhi, Mohandas K.)As a seminarian, he was so inspired by a sermon delivered by Mordecai Johnson- then President of Harvard University- at Fellowship House in Philadelphia (1950) on Gandhian non-violent resistance techniques that he immediately went out and brought six books on Gandhi. King was further enlightened by the Gandhian ideas when he was a doctoral student at Boston University by Howard Thurman, who had a deep influence on him. Both Mays and Thurman met Gandhi in India back in 1936.

 King, like Gandhi, was also inspired by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and extensively read on civil disobedience. Although some people call Thoreau an anarchist, Gandhi and King cannot be tagged so, since, although they became revolutionaries for justice, but they never rejected the rule of law like the anarchists.

King explained the Gandhian idea of nonviolent action within the larger framework of Christianity, saying that “Christ showed us the way and Gandhi in India showed it could work”. King later said that he considered Gandhi to be “the greatest Christian of the modern world”. (Gandhi, Mohandas K.). Both these personalities combined spirituality and political action in a way which was not seen before. Previously, religious banners were at the forefront of invading armies. Religion was used to deny people from their rights and keep aside the stronger competing religious factions. King and Gandhi intertwined their religious visions and actions together and rather than keeping the religious factions away, they included them in the mainstream national scenario. They both felt that people should stay committed to their religious traditions.


Gandhi used two Gujarati words “Satya” and “Graha” to preach his understanding of non-violence. For him “Satya Graha” means the way of life through which one steadfastly holds onto God and dedicates his life for the service of God. The path to God is through knowledge which is true and pure which only God could discern as to be true. The seeker of truth must be guided by “Ahimsa” or non- violence. The two pillars of Gandhi; “Truth” which was the end could only be achieved by non- violence/ ahimsa which are the means- these two concepts according to Gandhi are irrevocably bound to each other. “They say, ‘means are after all means.’ I would say, ‘means are after all everything.’ As the means so the end. For me nonviolence is not a mere philosophical principle. It is the rule and breathe of my life.” quoted Gandhi. (Confluence of Thought: Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2014).  It was first in South Africa (1893) where he developed his philosophy of non- violence, by organizing the Indians against race-based laws and social repression when he was exposed to the official prejudice present there. In 1919, Gandhi conducted Satya Graha, a national day of fasting and suspension of work, in response to the Rowlatt Acts. 1922 he promoted Indian self-rule- and encouraged the boycott of British goods and institutions as a result of which he and thousand other Satyagrahis were in charges of sedition. Gandhi conducted the civil disobedience movement (Dandi March) in 1930, where he produced salt from seawater along with 60,000 followers to defy the British Salt Laws. By late 1931, following the repression of Lord Irwin’s successors and while Gandhi was in jail, he fasted to protest against the policy of separate “electorates” for the untouchables within the new constitution in India. The fasting elicited public attention, and in 1947 a historic resolution was passed which made discrimination against untouchables illegal. These are the few instances which showed that Gandhi used non-violence as a way of life to win over the ultimate truth, which was freedom for his motherland, India.


Martin Luther was influenced by Gandhi to use non – violence as a powerful means of resistance. King emphasized on non- violence as a practical moral principle unlike Gandhi, who engages in complex religious philosophical analysis of non-violence. He majorly developed five notions that show his philosophical commitment towards non-violence:

  • Non- violence is not for the faint-hearted. According to him, it takes great courage to place oneself defenceless in front of an opponent who is capable of using physical violence.
  •  The goal of non- violence is not harming, humiliating or defeating the opponent; but to win his friendship and understanding.
  • Non-violent resistance is meant for evil deeds and not for the evildoer. For him, the struggle is against the system of oppression and not against bodies; hence the earlier the struggle will begin, the more will be the benefits from the struggle.
  • Although non-violence spiritually aggressive, although being spiritually non- aggressive; thus, it has the power to reach deep into the opponent’s soul.
  • Like Gandhi, King emphasized that non-violence is situated on self-suffering. His value of self-suffering repeated is expressed through the phrase “unearned suffering is redemptive”.  King understood through the Christian perspective, linking the redemption of the oppressed with Christ’s suffering on the cross, but he did treat it as a theological commandment, rather as a process of self-discovery and healing from bitterness. He treated it as virtue self-suffering is a virtue made out of necessity that is needed to redeem the oppressed groups from hatred that may cause them to seek retaliation.
  • Non-violence believes in love and not hatred. It is a notion that believes the universe is on the side of justice.


Although King was intellectually committed to non-violence, he did not experience the power of non-violent action until the start of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, where King personally followed the Gandhian Principles. With the guidance from black pacifist Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, King was determined not to use armed bodyguards although there was a threat on his life and even reacted to violent experiences such as bombing of his home with compassion. By leading and practically experiencing non- violent protests, King understood that non- violence could be made a way of life which was applicable in all situations. According to him the principle of non-violent resistance was “guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method” (Nonviolence)

The main factor behind the success of the American Civil Rights Movement and the fight for racial equality in the United States was the strategy of protesting for equal rights without using violence. The movement is a testament to the determination of millions of African Americans who fought against discrimination in the 1960s. King used this approach as an alternative to armed uprising, influenced by the teachings of Gandhi. America’s second civil war was led by King, in which millions of blacks peacefully protested on the streets along with carrying out civil disobedience and economic boycotts. It took place in areas of Birmingham and Alabama. In August 1963, thousands of whites and Africa Americans protested peacefully on the streets of Washington for their civil rights without any police arrest. Although many people did not believe in his non- violent ways and there were violent repercussions, the movement moved towards a crescendo in 1964 and finally in 1965, civil rights legislations were passed, thus bringing victory to Luther’s efforts. 

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for the law.”

-Martin Luther King Jr. (Winston)

 After the success of the boycott of 1956, King along with his wife Coretta Scott King, visited India to further enhance his knowledge in Gandhian principles. According to him, “India is the land where the techniques of non-violent social change were developed that my people have used in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere throughout the American South” (India Trip)


Both Gandhi and King used civil disobedience as a means of effectuating government change, in the form of large-scale, non-violent refusals to obey government commands. Although his protests and speeches caused great danger to him and his finally which unfortunately led to his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. still had the courage to protest against discrimination and promote love and truth among people and win against his opponent through the act of Civil Disobedience. They both committed themselves to the idea of Satyagraha, the path of Truth-force or Soul-force which initially shaped Gandhi’s efforts in South Africa against racial discrimination; and to the ideal of Ahimsa, which Gandhi expressed as love and not only as non- violence In this path of Satyagraha and Ahimsa, both emphasized that means justify the ends and not the reverse. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” Non-violence for them was not a strategy but a way of life worth living.  “My life is my message,” quoted Gandhi and he said, “For me nonviolence is not a mere philosophical principle. It is the rule and breath of my life.”Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted, “If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a song, if I can show somebody he’s travelling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.” (Confluence of Thought: Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2014). Luther was a true disciple of Gandhi and through the Gandhian principles; Luther was able to bring about a significant change in the social scenario.


Journal Articles:

(2014). Confluence of Thought: Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington D.C.: Gandhi Memorial Center.

Dalton, D. (n.d.). (1969). Gandhi: Ideology and Authority. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, Gandhi Centenary Number , Cambridge University Press , pp. 377-393.

DOCTOR, A. H. (n.d.). THE MAN IN GANDHIAN PHILOSOPHY. The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 53, No. 2 (April – June, 1992), Indian Political Science Association , pp. 152-167.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (n.d.). (2018). from Stanford Univeristy, The Martin Luther King, Jr.: Retrieved from

Gier, N. (2018). Mahatma Gandhi’s profound influence on Martin Luther King. The Reader .

India Trip. (n.d.). (2018). The Martin Luther King, Jr.: Retrieved from

Kumar, P. (2017). What King Learned from Gandhi. Los Angeles Review Of Books .

Leslie, R. (n.d.). (1990). Martin Luther King Jr. International Journal on World Peace, Vol. 7, No. 4), Professors World Peace Academy , pp.77-79.

Mahakul, J. X. (n.d.). (2009). CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF GANDHISM. The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 70, No. 1, Indian Political Association , pp. 41-54.

Nonviolence. (n.d.). (2018). The Martin Luther King, Jr.: Retrieved from

Paul Banahene Adjei, P. (2013). The Non-Violent Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 21st Century: Implications for the Pursuit of Social Justice in a Global Context. Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education .

Simkins, C. (2014). Non-violence Was Key to Civil Rights Movement. Voice of America .

Smith, D. (n.d.). (1970). An Exegesis of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Social Philosophy. Phylon (1960-), Vol. 31, Clark Atlanta University , pp. 89-97.

Steinkraus, W. E. (n.d.). (1973) Martin Luther King’s Personalism and Non-Violence. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. University of Pennsylvania Press , pp. 97-111.

Winston, K. (n.d.). (2018). Civil Disobedience, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Retrieved, from Weebly:


King, M. L., Jr. (1958). Stride toward freedom: The Montgomery story. Boston. Beacon Press.

Gandhi, M.K. (1957). Gandhi: An autobiography. The story of my experiments with truth. Ahmadabad, MA: NAVAJIVAN PUBLISHING HOUSE.

Video: Indian Political Centre. (November 4, 2016). Martin Luther King on Gandhi. Retrieved from

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.

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