February 9, 2009, is the 50th anniversary of the visit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta King to India. A delegation from the King Centre is visiting India to commemorate the occasion. The following is an account of the visit of Dr. King from the King encyclopedia online:
From the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to India's Mahatma Gandhi as "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change." Following the success of the boycott in 1956, King contemplated traveling to India to deepen his understanding of Gandhian principles.
That same year, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minister, made a short visit to the United States. While unable to arrange a meeting with King, Nehru made inquiries through his diplomatic representatives as to the possibility of King visiting India in the future. King faced logistical difficulties in arranging the trip; but in 1959, he finally made his way to India, along with his wife, Coretta, and Lawrence Reddick, who at the time was chairman of the history department at Alabama State College.
After a lengthy and difficult journey due to a stop in Paris, a missed connection in Switzerland, and fog, King arrived in Bombay, India, on 9 February. Upon arrival in New Delhi the following day, King told a group of reporters gathered at the airport, "To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim."
Throughout their visit, King, Coretta, and Reddick received invitations to hundreds of engagements, of which they were only able to accept a small number. "The people showered upon us the most generous hospitality imaginable. Almost every door was open so that our party was able to see some of India's most important social experiments and talk with leaders in and out of government, ranging from Prime Minister Nehru, to village councilmen and Vinoba Bhave, the sainted leader of the land reform movement."
King's time in India revealed the extent to which the Montgomery bus boycott was covered in India and throughout the world. Thanks to the Indian papers, the boycott in Montgomery was already well-known in India prior to his visit. King recalled, "We were looked upon as brothers, with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa, and Asia struggling to throw off racism and imperialism." Their overlapping experiences with racism and common philosophy of liberation sparked numerous conversations. King shared his views on the race question before university groups and at public meetings that were always packed.
As he traveled from north to south and east to west, King reflected on the similarities and differences between India and the United States. He observed that although India was rife with poverty, overpopulation, unemployment, and starvation, there were wealthy Indians with luxurious homes, landed estates, fine clothes, and plenty to eat. But he also discovered that despite India's economic problems, the country experienced a low crime rate and strong spiritual quality, and the bourgeoisie—whether white, black, or brown—had similar life chances. Upon his return from India, King compared the discrimination of India's untouchables with America's race problems, noting that India's leaders publicly endorsed integration laws. "This has not been done so largely in America," King wrote. "For example, today no leader in India would dare to make a public endorsement of untouchability. But in America, every day some leader endorses racial segregation."
Gandhians accepted King with open arms and praised him for his efforts in Montgomery, which they looked upon as an example of the potential of nonviolence outside of India. King's meetings with satyagrahis deepened his commitment to nonviolent resistance, and his interactions with the Gandhi family ingrained in him the power of nonviolent resistance and its potential usefulness throughout the world —even against totalitarian regimes. In a discussion with African students who were studying in India, King argued, "True nonviolent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may deve lop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart."
The trip to India affected King in a profound way, deepening his understanding of nonviolent resistance and his commitment to America's struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected, "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation."