King and Gandhi

January 16, 1995|By RONALD H. BROWN

Raj Gat, India. -- In 1893 a young attorney named Mohandas Gandhi was thrown off a South African train for refusing to sit in a segregated car reserved for ''coloreds.''

Jolted by the experience, Gandhi spent 20 years battling racism in South Africa. Returning to India, he spent the remainder of his life struggling to expel the British Raj and unite the people of this nation. Gandhi's medium was nonviolent protest, satyagraha, a courageous political philosophy that demands of its disciples extraordinary discipline and love, and challenges not the power, but the conscience of its opponents.

In 1955 a tired seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up a bus seat to a white man. Montgomery's African-Americans rose up in boycott. A young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was asked to lead the effort.

Thrust into leadership, King thought back to the Sermon on the Mount and to Gandhi's nonviolent resistance. ''This principle,'' he later wrote, ''became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit . . . while Gandhi furnished the method.''

King's leadership and Gandhi's philosophy carried the movement far beyond the bus routes of Montgomery, challenging and ultimately transforming America. Opportunities unknown to my grandparents and barely grasped by my mother and father were fought for and won within my lifetime.

The struggle was not only for legal rights, but for economic opportunity. Gandhi wrote, ''I am not a visionary. I claim to be a practical idealist.'' King preached that the struggle for salvation in the next life should not diminish our right for dignity and a measure of security in this one. And we all understand that a broadly prosperous society more easily transcends the envy and bitterness that often underlie the hatred that took the lives of the two men we honor.

There are those who see anger and failure -- who see heroes martyred and dreams deferred -- and turn inward or give up. But, as Gandhi said, ''in the midst of death, life persists, in the midst of untruth, truth persists, in the midst of darkness, light persists.''

We cannot expect our work to be completed in a day, or in our lifetime. But that should not dim our ardor or sap our courage.

In his final sermon, Martin Luther King, echoing Moses, preached: ''I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.''

In our own hearts, and through the work of people like Gandhi and King, we too have seen the promised land. We may not reach it ourselves. But our work -- as people of conscience, as leaders of commerce, as activists and elected officials -- can carry our nations further down that path. Our presence here today testifies to the enduring power of the ideal we pursue.

This article is taken from remarks delivered yesterday in India by Ronald H. Brown, Secretary of Commerce, in a commemoration at the Gandhi memorial.

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