CSU Archives/Everett Collection
Last spring The Nation Institute sponsored a forum at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City on “Gandhi, King and the Power of Nonviolence: Alternatives to Force in the 21st Century.” The participants were Jonathan Schell, The Nation‘s Peace and Disarmament correspondent, author of The Fate of the Earth and most recently, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger; and Taylor Branch, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning three-volume history of the Martin Luther King era. The moderator was the writer Suzannah Lessard. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.
I believe that Gandhi’s Satyagraha is the most important political discovery of the twentieth century. It happened on September 11, 1906, in the Empire Theater in Durban, South Africa. At that time the Indian community in South Africa had been suffering very serious oppression, not unlike apartheid. The Indians were not allowed to vote. They couldn’t own land in certain places, and in 1906 a law was passed that greatly heightened their oppression. The Indian community called it the Black Act. It consisted of forcing everybody to be registered, fingerprinted on pain of imprisonment or expulsion.
Gandhi saw the act as an attempt to destroy this community. He said, “It meant absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa.” And he said, “It’s better to die than to submit to such a law.” So Satyagraha was born to defend the right of a people to exist, in the face of what today we would call ethnic cleansing or even genocide.
Another interesting feature of the event was that it occurred on the spur of the moment at the Empire Theater in Durban. Gandhi later wrote, “The foundations of the first civil resistance under the then well-known name of passive resistance were laid by accident. I had gone to a meeting with no preconceived resolution. It was born at the meeting.”
At the meeting a gentleman called Seth Haji Habib demanded that the audience take an oath, before God, not to observe the Black Act. Gandhi was startled because he saw a world of difference between a mere vote and an actual oath by individuals, which he believed could only be taken by those people themselves and which was binding on them no matter what anyone else did. A new force, a new power, was being brought to bear in politics, a new commitment, a new will really unto death, yet without violence.
I’d like to jump forward to late in the twentieth century. Dr. King was in Birmingham leading a movement to break segregation, and after great anguish he had taken this great gamble. There had been nonviolent demonstrations for over a month, and he had written his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which no one paid much attention to. It had not been published. He was about to withdraw.