As chance would have it, when I picked up the autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography I Have a Dream at a bookstore yesterday, it opened on Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, which is about his visit to India in 1959.
Reading on, I was struck by Dr. King’s experiences during this historic visit. admittedly, till this instant, I was not aware that he had ever visited India.
In fact, he was in India for one full month, which is a reasonably long duration.
His observations during the visit are striking, and speak of both the respect that he had for Mahatma Gandhi as well the sheer idealism that he seems to have experienced- in fact so surreal that it is almost suspicious.
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.
We had the opportunity to share our views with thousands of Indian people through endless conversations and numerous discussion sessions. I spoke before university groups and public meetings all over India. Because of the keen interest that the Indian people have in the race problem these meetings were usually packed.
This is in stark contrast to what most Africans or African- Americans would experience today and one wonders what Dr King would have written if he visited India today.
But what is most touching is the following anecdote that he recalls from a visit to a school for the (then so called) “untouchables” (now called the Dalits).
“I AM AN UNTOUCHABLE”
I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables ….
The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”
And for a moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable ….
I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attending inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities.
And I said to myself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”