Updated: Oct 16
Students of U.S history may be familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India in 1959 and his interest in Indian civil disobedience tactics, but few have learned of the decades-long history of Black-South Asian solidarity. Since the eve of India’s independence, Black activists have championed the cause of Indian liberation from the British Raj. Though India’s fight for independence made headlines around the world, the Black community in the United States, especially civil rights leaders, were particularly invested in the outcome.
Shortly after Gandhi made his “Quit India” speech to the All India Congress, newspaper columnist and sociologist Horace Cayton Jr. commented that, “It may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but India and the possibility of the Indians obtaining their freedom from England by any means has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” Black academics and activists’ work circa World War II emphasized how colonizers arming their subjects to fight in their wars and exposing them to democratic traditions in the process was bound to produce revolution. Likewise, the Black struggle illustrated the friction between American democracy and structural racism. These similarities galvanized Black activists to support the Indian liberation movement and encouraged their Indian counterparts to raise their voices against American racism.
Bayard Rustin Visits the Subcontinent
Though Bayard Rustin is not a household name, his contributions to the civil rights movement are prolific. A pacifist and Quaker, Ruskin was known for championing nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights movement, integration in schools, and organizing the March on Washington. He was inspired by the global movement against colonialism and particularly passionate about India’s liberation struggle. In 1948, shortly following Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu extremist, Rustin traveled to India to study Gandhian civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Additionally, Rustin brought his own experiences as an activist to India, delivering a series of lectures on pacifism in the American civil rights movement at the International Pacifism Seminar. These lectures, endorsed by both Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, were especially resonant against the rising tide of nationalist violence following Gandhi’s death.
Ram Manohar Lohia in the Jim-Crow South
Like Rustin, Ram Manohar Lohia dedicated his life to his people’s freedom. He protested against the Raj and campaigned against casteism, gender bias, and social inequality. Lohia played a key role in involving the youth in India’s freedom fight. After India gained its independence, Lohia took his pioneering spirit to Nashville, lecturing college students at Fisk University about civil disobedience. His zeal for the Black civil rights movement was so intense that he returned to the United States as an established member of the Indian Parliament in 1964 to participate in Mississippi sit-ins. After being refused service at a “whites only” restaurant, Lohia returned to the establishment the following day. As he had expected, the police arrived, arresting him. Though Lohia was soon released, the arrest of a prominent foreign government official was an embarrassment for the American government. The State Department apologized, stating that the arrest represented, “...tyranny against the United States Constitution.” Lohia replied that the State Department may “go to hell.” He intended to shed light on the injustices of American racism and segregation, even if the cost was arrest.
B.R. Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois Letters
In addition to being a jurist, economist, and freedom fighter, B.R. Ambedkar was among India’s most prominent social reformers that campaigned to end casteism. Ambedkar was a correspondent of W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent Black American civil rights activist. In his first letter to Du Bois, Ambedkar writes, “There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” His writing also drew parallels between Black struggles against slavery and segregation with oppression and marginalization of scheduled castes. Du Bois returned Ambedkar’s correspondence with enthusiasm, and also exchanged letters with Lohia, Nehru, and Gandhi among other freedom fighters. He consistently expressed his sympathy and solidarity with the scheduled castes’ movement.
The history of collaboration and exchange of ideas between Black Americans and South Asians began long before Dr. King’s historic visit to India. As a South Asian, I encourage my community to reflect on this enduring legacy of solidarity between South Asians and Black Americans. We must continue to be allies and support Black Americans in their struggles against structural, systemic racism. Allyship means calling out racism and microaggressions within our own communities; but moreover, it means protesting against police brutality, educating ourselves and our communities about Black history, and using our vote to demolish structural inequality.
For more empowering examples of Black-South Asian solidarity, visit blackdesisecrethistory.org. To read my post about the film Mississippi Masala, which delves into racism among the Black and South Asian community in the United States, click here.