King's Disappointment

Both King and Gandhi were frustrated that they could get people to protest but not to serve.

BY: Harris Wofford

 

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Yet I believe that Martin would be deeply disappointed that his name were connected only with the fight for racial justice and nonviolent protest.



Time and again, Martin talked with me about a side of Mahatma Gandhi that deeply appealed to him. Not just the Gandhi of the salt march, and the years in prison, but Gandhi the servant leader.

Gandhi said that

satyagraha

--the name he gave to his way of action, "firmness in truth"--had two sides: civil disobedience and, the other side of the coin, constructive service.

Gandhi often said that his purpose in life was to live the sermon on the mount. He asked the Indian independence movement to carry out a 13-point plan of constructive service that included personal action to end untouchability by working, eating, and serving side by side with untouchables, by adopting them as members of one's family. It included teaching all Indians to read and bringing health care to every village.

When high-caste Indians refused to do the work of untouchables and join in cleaning the stinking latrines at a Great Indian Congress assembly, Gandhi organized a volunteer service corps to clean the latrines. "Why wait for independence for the necessary drain-cleaning?" he asked.

Martin took the same approach. In launching the Montgomery Improvement Association to run the bus boycott, Martin involved this Gandhian theme of service, saying they were organizing not just to fight segregation but to keep on working to improve all of Montgomery and create the "Beloved Community."

But King and Gandhi were both regularly disappointed when they tried to turn their followers to the hard work and occasional drudgery of constructive service. To the militants' 1960s cry of "Burn, baby, burn," King said, No, the watchword should be "Learn, baby, learn." In the long lulls between great protest campaigns, Martin struggled to engage people in constructive service and create the institutions for justice in America.

Continued on page 3: »

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