King, Gandhi, and Thurman: A Conversation With Sarah Azaransky

King, Gandhi, and Thurman: A Conversation With Sarah Azaransky

King, Gandhi, and Thurman: A Conversation With Sarah Azaransky

The author of This Worldwide Struggle discusses the interreligious and international roots of the civil-rights movement.


There is a great revolution going on all over the world,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, introducing the Kenyan activist Tom Mboya at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference event in 1959. “What we are trying to do in the South and in the United States is part of this worldwide struggle for freedom and human dignity.” It is from this quote that Sarah Azaransky drew the title of her new book This Worldwide Struggle, which explores the religious and international roots of the civil-rights movement.

But perhaps an earlier King moment better exemplifies the global struggles that informed the leaders of the civil-rights movement. In March 1957, 14 weeks after the end of the Montgomery bus boycotts, King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, were in Accra—shoulder to shoulder with Adam Clayton Powell, Charles Diggs, Ralph Bunche, Mordecai Johnson, Horace Mann Bond, and A. Philip Randolph—celebrating “The Birth of a New Nation,” as King would title the speech he gave in Montgomery a month later, about Ghana’s independence.

“That night when I saw that old flag coming down and the new flag coming up,” King said, “I saw something else…. that thing symbolized to me that an old order is passing away and a new order is coming into being. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. And a new order of justice and freedom and good will is being born.”

“Ghana has something to say to us,” King added. “It says to us that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it.… Don’t go back into your homes and around Montgomery thinking that the Montgomery City Commission and that all the forces in the leadership of the South will eventually work out this thing for Negroes.”

King’s international perspective was nurtured by an older generation of black theologians—several of whom are discussed in the book—who had been exploring the philosophy and practice of Gandhian nonviolence, among other philosophies and movements around the world, and devising ways to use the Christian Gospel as a message to bring about political change domestically. They saw a connection between the aristocrats of the US South and Indian maharajas, black sharecroppers and Indian peasants. The foundation they built for the more popular leaders, such as King, runs deep.

Benjamin Mays, a minister and author of the seminal work The Negro’s God: As Reflected in His Literature, was president of Morehouse College when the 15-year-old King enrolled in the fall of 1944. King would go on to study under the tutelage of the theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman—himself a friend of Mays and a classmate of King’s father at Morehouse—as a doctoral student at Boston University. Thurman’s 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited became a second Bible for King, informing his vision of the Gospel as a manual for social change.

What’s more, these religious leaders were not blind to the historical connections between Christianity and colonialism. Indeed, they attempted to use that history as an opportunity to chart a new future. In October, I met Azaransky at her office at Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, to discuss that very challenge—preaching the gospel around the world, with a political message, given the Christianity’s colonial roots—and many other themes from her fascinating book. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

What drew you to write this book and what were the major lessons you came away with from working on it?

The book came out of what had been my dissertation and became my first book about Pauli Murray, who is in this book also. She’s just an incredible figure. She’s at the intersection of civil rights and women’s rights, and is ahead of her time in everything in so many ways. When I was writing my dissertation, I had to do three or four days of research where I was making sense of her time at Howard in order to write the two paragraphs on her time there.

While at Howard, she was talking with Howard Thurman about a group of students who were organizing sit-ins, when the college asked them to stop. And so she wanted advice. And in that research, I discovered Thurman and Benjamin Mays and this whole collection of people at Howard school of religion who were doing really interesting work. So I knew for my next book I wanted to do something about what was happening there. When I did, I kept on seeing that Thurman and Mays were good friends. So I thought I’d set out to write a buddy book, and it didn’t turn out that way, because when I started the research, I discovered that both of them, within the same year, met Gandhi. And then as I followed, I discovered actually it wasn’t just going to be about them, it was going to be about this network of intellectuals and activists who were really doing the core theological and activist work that would be significant to laying the groundwork for the later civil-rights movement.

How did you think about weaving together this sprawling cast of characters into one book?

I think Gandhi—and the philosophy of nonviolence, and Gandhi as an anti-colonial leader—was such an important presence, especially in the black press and in conversations and radical black politics in the United States as early as the ’20s and into the ’30s. What was unique about the people I write about is they were interested in how he was using religion and politics together. And so they do engage with Gandhi. In the last 15 years at least, there’s been this reevaluation of Gandhi. That, in fact, he was casteist, that in fact he didn’t work with black South Africans in his movement in South Africa.

Well, they knew that. And they asked those exact questions to Gandhi. So, to my mind, this was such a fascinating engagement because they saw Gandhi’s limitations and his moral blind spots. One of the significant lessons, from this generation, the way that they were engaging with Gandhi in particular was to say, “There are things, Gandhi, you’re doing that we think you’re getting wrong, but we still want to hear what you have to say.”

And so I think in this moment we’re in right now, we need a lot of different moral and political resources to address contemporary crises, but there also is at the same time this real desire for ideological purity from folks especially on the left. The people and their resources have to get everything right. And what was interesting about this group of intellectuals and activists is they were able to see that Gandhi, for example, didn’t get everything right. What can we learn from him anyway? How can we learn from him and not repeat his mistakes?

Which I think also goes for this same generation of activists and intellectuals. Sometimes they didn’t get it right. We can look, for example, at the way in which Bayard Rustin, for all of his amazing prophetic organizing, did not recognize women’s significance as leaders. So how do we learn from him and not repeat that?

Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited—which talks about distinguishing between the religion of Jesus and the Christian church—seems to be born out of his disappointing conversation with Gandhi. I have been thinking about whether the international boom in Christianity—especially, for me, throughout Ghana and West Africa—is leading to an embrace of its political side with all the issues in the world today.

An exchange with a law professor in Colombo Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), who tells Thurman, “I believe you’re a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth,” gives Thurman a concise rundown of 300 years of American racial history. That’s to say that when these Americans were going to other parts of the world, people knew the American story. The question that Thurman and Mays got in a number of places that they went, which is also Gandhi’s question to them—”Why aren’t you Muslim?”—would’ve been profoundly intelligible to them as black American Christians, because there’s a fantastically rich history of both black American Islam and black Christians’ converting to Islam. It was within Islam that radical politics was more possible, because Christianity was in fact a colonial tradition.

When Thurman left for the trip, representing in part the YMCA, which was still a missionary organization at the time, he was a little hesitant because he didn’t want to be seen as a missionary. He anticipated questions like this. One of the reasons that exchange is so powerful is because it was someone who shared Thurman’s social location as a person of color living under colonial occupation. As they’re engaging with the color line around the world and seeing how anti-colonial movements are growing around the world, they began to understand Jim Crow as a kind of colonialism.

Jesus and the Disinherited is such a profound theological text. Thurman begins to distinguish between the religion of Jesus and the Christian church. What it means to be someone who loves Jesus and follows the Gospels, and someone who is committed to the institution as institution. He wants people to understand and love Jesus. When he rereads the Gospels, he saw the thing he always knew, but with this challenge, saw it in a new way, and that is that Jesus was someone without citizenship status who lived under colonial occupation. Thurman says, “Well, that’s just like African Americans living in the South under Jim Crow,” without citizenship status. Black Americans should know more and have more affinity to the Christian Gospels than people in power.

What have we lost in the transition from the civil-rights movement, which was fortified by religious moralism, to the contemporary moment of secularism? Contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter and individual writers and thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates

have separated themselves from that religious tradition?

Well, I’ll try to be properly historical as I say this. I think that for this generation of people, and this particular group of people, their religiosity is what helped them understand who they were and how the world works. I think that’s not true for everybody, but it’s also—this is where I want to be historical—what helped them to develop answers in a particular moment.

When I talk about the ways in which Thurman and Mays called upon what they believed were egalitarian visions available in Christianity and in American democracy, I don’t know that they’d have that same faith today. I think it would look different because of the last 75 years that we’ve lived through of this country’s history. I’m not saying that they would not be faithful. I’m not saying they would not be hopeful. I’m saying they would come to different conclusions.

One of the important lessons of this group of people is that what we think about as the greatest social movement, the greatest American social movement of the 20th century, had really important international sources because Americans, these Americans, felt that American sources weren’t enough. American Christianity wasn’t enough, and American democracy wasn’t enough. There were people in other parts of the world who were thinking and acting differently that they wanted to understand in order to bring it here to have a movement that could work. When we think about anti-colonial and now post-colonial history, we think about dates we can mark in terms of achievement: 1947 is India, 1957 is Ghana, 1960, Nigeria. What’s the American date? I don’t think it’s 1776, certainly not for these black Americans.

In terms of Black Lives Matter, we have been in a movement moment for the last three and a half to four years in part because of Black Lives Matter and the clarion call of that movement. From my perspective, as someone who is interested in the history of social movements, what Black Lives Matter has done is articulate so clearly the moral call of black humanity as a measure for all humanity. It flips this notion of who is a complete and full human being. So there is this notion that only when people recognize the significance of black humanity and the fullness of black humanity do other people also begin to be human themselves. That’s a profound moment. And what becomes significant and unique in the history of a social movement is providing new ways for us to think and understand who we are.

I want to ask about Fanon and the scene you portray of the All African People’s Congress. He maintained that nonviolence can’t be the answer for every single situation. I wonder if any of the people you talk about—Rustin, Thurman, any of them—ever considered other alternatives, besides nonviolence, for accomplishing their goals.

I’ll say, yes and no. That moment where Fanon is speaking is a conference that Mboya is chairing, and that Nkrumah’s hosting. He’s been prime minister for a year or two at that point, and he’s still ostensibly committed to nonviolence, so it’s interesting because Fanon is calling him to the carpet in his home. And a few years later, Nkrumah writes about the necessity of revolutionary violence in his Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare. So that’s to say, he changes his mind.

So this book ends in 1959, with Rustin in Ghana leading this Pan African International pacifist protest to French nuclear testing in the Sahara after also spending a lot of time in different parts of Africa engaging with different independence movements. And he was asked some version of this question often: “What happens if colonial forces are attacking? How on earth, does it make sense to be nonviolent in response?” He often heard that question as trying to challenge him in the logic of nonviolence and he said, “Well of course that’s true,” and that there is a different moral valence to violence that is undertaken if you’re defending yourself and a violence that’s undertaken in order to oppress someone else.

Rustin himself felt very keenly in this philosophical notion of refusal and non-cooperation. That the ways in which, kind of for lack of a better term, the currency of violence works. I’m interested right now in the political moment in which we are in the United States, which is diverse and complicated in the depth of this political moment—but what it would mean to really revisit people like Farmer who talked about the race logic of pacifism? But pacifism and nonviolence, they’re these terms that are like from a bygone era, and they’re naive. I think. I think they have this feeling of being naive and bygone and sort of silly. But there’s something I think really politically powerful and interesting about this notion of non-cooperation. What does it mean to recognize the prevailing social patterns and powers and to say, “I’m going to not go along with whatever it is”?

That’s what they were choosing, and nonviolence was a means to do that. But what happens if we prioritize non-cooperation—non-cooperation with what? That becomes I think really interesting. And that’s one of the lessons from this generation of people too.

I’m curious what you think: Going back to Jesus and the Disinherited and thinking about citizenship, how do you reckon with the reality that a lot of ostensibly religious people voted for Donald Trump, no matter the position that puts immigrants and minorities in?

The very first section of the book I was writing, which was an article years before the book came out, was about Jesus and the Disinherited and the border in San Diego. Because I was living in San Diego and I was reflecting on the ways in which whiteness and citizenship get conflated in this country and the ways in which Thurman talks about white necessity. He uses this notion of whiteness and the Roman centurion. The folks who have power within the Roman occupying army he sort of tags as being white.

So Thurman is making the argument that, for those of us who are Christian, we need to be really attentive to who Jesus was. He wrote Jesus and the Disinherited to all those whose backs are against the wall, which I think absolutely describes immigrant communities during the Trump administration. Those are the people whose backs are against the wall. That is nobody if not DACA recipients as they are figuring out what’s going to happen in the next few months and what that means for them.

Thurman is clearly saying that Jesus is someone without citizenship status, that if he were beaten and left by the side of the road, no one would know or care, because of his lesser status. Now, what does that mean for contemporary Christians? It means they need to understand the Gospel better. I think Thurman wants to touch on the extent to which the Christian church has been so divorced from the religion of Jesus. He really begins to draw that distinction that when the law professor in Colombo says, “How are you not a traitor?,” he begins to realize there’s this distinction.

It’s fascinating that, way back then, he’s talking about the idea of a construction of whiteness and white necessity. I don’t even know when critical studies around whiteness took hold, but he seems to precede it by…

Decades. Thurman talks about the ways in which whiteness narrows people’s moral imagination and what white people can do to push back against that. It’s fascinating. It feels anachronistic. This is in Jesus and the Disinherited, which was published in 1949, but he’d been working on it for 10 years. Now, the time that it was published, not for nothing, he had left Howard a few years before and was in San Francisco and a co-pastor of what was then, and is now, the Fellowship Church that was intentionally interracial. So intentionally that when the congregation, began to be predominantly of one racial identity, he physically moved the church building.

What was the most surprising thing for you as you researched and wrote this book?

The history of the civil-rights movement is told in the dominant culture as an inexorable American movement. It had to happen. And King was just calling on these American ideals. Well, he was, very ironically and skillfully, but also some of the important reasons and ways in which it happened, happened because, like I said before, American resources weren’t enough. So this archetypal or paradigmatic American movement is also profoundly international; it’s also profoundly interreligious.

So when, a few months ago—and he’s not alone—our president talked about Western values surviving, democracy existing in all corners of the world and having profits in all parts of the world—to talk about democracy or Western values in this way makes no sense. This history of the movement tells us that these were African values and these were South Asian values and these were American values—and they work together.

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