Ninety years ago this month, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune flew from Europe, where he’d been covering the rise of fascism, to India to write about the “peculiar revolution” that was gathering there. He met its leader, a spindly, bright-eyed little man who sat making thread for homespun cotton.
“How could so humble a man, I wondered,” William L. Shirer wrote in Gandhi: A Memoir, “spinning away with his nimble fingers on a crude wheel as he talked, have begun almost single-handedly to rock the foundations of the British Empire, aroused a third of a billion people to rebellion against foreign rule, and taught them the technique of a new revolutionary method — non-violent civil disobedience — against which Western guns and Eastern lathis [police batons] were proving of not much worth. ... So I simply said: ‘How have you done it?’
“‘By love and truth,’ he smiled. ‘In the long run no force can prevail against them.’”
I found Shirer’s memoir when I was scouring my bookshelves during the shutdown for something to read. He was the first Western journalist to spend time and talk closely with Gandhi, who spent over 2,000 days in British jails before his nation finally won its freedom in 1947, entirely through nonviolent resistance. That inspirited liberation movements in Asia, Africa and elsewhere that altogether freed some 13 nations and almost 1.7 billion people from white colonial rule.
Last week I read March, John Lewis’s graphic-novel trilogy about his life in the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and his fellow early leaders of the movement adopted Gandhi’s approach to resistance, which the Indian leader called “soul force.” As a student in Nashville, Lewis found a workshop on nonviolence in a Black Baptist church, where he “met people who opened my eyes to a sense of values that would forever dominate my moral philosophy — the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence.”
It’s a beautiful trilogy, soul-stirring and deeply informative. And last week, like so many others, I read the valedictory op-ed Lewis wrote for the New York Times. Having visited a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. the day before entering the hospital for the last time, he recalled hearing Dr. King decades earlier on an old radio. “He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.
“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
I have no stature to add anything to this. I just hope we’re on the way, as a nation, to choosing the path these great men opened.