India 's Legacy to the African American Civil Rights Movement

The African American Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s was galvanized into national awareness by an African American woman, Rosa Parks, and African American students who were willing to expose themselves to the risks of retaliation, grave physical harm, and even death, in order to achieve integration and equal rights. By refusing to move to the back of the bus, insisting on the right to be served at lunch counters and educated in schools exclusively reserved for whites, and conducting voter registration drives door-to-door and at polling places despite concerted intimidation and physical attack, these front-line soldiers declared to anyone who would listen that the days of “going along to get along” were over; and that their human dignity was more important to them than life itself. Where did they find the courage and the inner strength to make these choices and live by them to stubbornly persist even when they had everything to lose and might never have seen the fruits of their efforts? The church was one source. The other - the philosophy that informed the Civil Rights Movement and is most often associated with Dr. Martin Luther King - had its origins in Mahatma Gandhi's longstanding study of Yoga and Vedanta, two of the most ancient philosophies of India . The concepts of ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truth), and vairagya (detachment from the fruits of action) provided resources and strategies that Gandhi himself used to liberate India from British colonialism. When American Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin visited Gandhi in the 1940s, he returned to the United States with a sound knowledge of these philosophies and of their spiritual potential to empower African Americans to face down any threat that interfered with their own liberation from American racism. Rustin was Dr. King's source for these ideas; and he, in turn, transmitted them to the students who put their lives and their futures on the line in the struggle against racial discrimination. The strategies and spiritual values of the American Civil Rights Movement, in turn, have provided the model for all subsequent liberation struggles in the United States : the anti-Vietnam war movement, feminism, and gay liberation among them. The Indian philosophies of Yoga and Vedanta continue to offer those personal and spiritual resources to anyone engaged in the struggle for justice to this day.