The Debt MLK Owed to India’s Anti-Colonial Fight

The campaign against Jim Crow was always embedded in a larger global battle against white supremacy. (The Atlantic, 4 April, 2018)

In February of 1949, a group of stevedores gathered under a mango tree in the Brazilian port of Salvador to prepare for carnival celebrations. They needed a theme for their contingent. Searching far and wide, the mostly Afro-Brazilian workers settled on an extravagant international gesture. The Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi had been assassinated almost exactly a year earlier. Gandhi’s struggles against political and economical injustice resonated with men who themselves experienced racial oppression in a deeply unequal society. In his memory and in honor of his commitment to nonviolence, the stevedores named their group Filhos de Gandhi—“Sons of Gandhi.” The stevedores could not have known then that nearly 70 years later, their group would be the biggest and most legendary block in Salvador’s carnival.

Their choice of theme wasn’t whimsical, but in keeping with a zeitgeist that seems remote to us now. The 20th century may be defined in the West by the World Wars and the Cold War, but for much of the rest of the planet it was the age of decolonization, when old structures of (often racial) domination and power gave way to new states, new nations, and new politics. Developments in one corner of the Global South reverberated continents away, forging bonds of sympathy and engagement. When India won independence from the British in 1947, it inspired people across Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

The civil-rights movement in the United States was inextricable from this wider international context. When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, he was flanked by men wearing the distinctive boat-shaped “Gandhi caps,” popularized both by activists of the Indian National Congress (Gandhi’s party) and by freedom fighters in Ghana during their respective struggles against the British. Those paper hats were indicative of a larger truth; the campaign against segregation and Jim Crow was always embedded in a larger global battle against white supremacy. Beyond being a chapter in an American story, the civil-rights movement was another episode in the rebelling of colonized peoples around the world.

Read the rest of the piece on The Atlantic

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