The meeting with the members of the American Negro Delegation was the first engagement of an important nature undertaken by Gandhiji since the breakdown in his health. He could not think of letting them leave our shores without meeting them, and I had the honour one early morning to receive them at Navsari station and to escort them to Bardoli.
It was a privilege to meet these friends, and even a two hours’ concentrated Conversation with them did not seem to tire Gandhiji, who asked Dr. Thurman all kinds of questions about the American Negroes, in order to acquaint himself a little with his subject before he could talk with them with confidence. One of the best alumni of the Negro Universities, Dr. Thurman explained to Gandhiji, with the cautious and dispassionate detachment characteristic of a professor of philosophy, the various schools of Negro thought. Booker T. Washington represented the economic school which had its place when America was less industrialized than it is today and there was more demand for skilled labour. A young man of 34 is now in charge trying to adjust Tuskegee to the new situation. Du Bois, the mulatto representative of the ‘Talented Tenth’ was still directing part of the intellectual section of the Negroes, teaching Sociology in the Atlanta University, and offering a challenging intellectual solution of the Negro problem through his latest book—black reconstruction. He was now editing a big Encyclopædia of the American Negro, giving the entire story of the American Negro from 1619 to the present time. Dr. Thurman explained the State theory of the separate but so-called ‘equal’ education of the Negro and told how Harvard University in Washington was the only illustration of the Federal Government participating directly in the running of a Negro University, giving 80 per cent of the expenses of its running. Up to ten years ago the whole of the teaching staff were European, now most of them are Negroes. “The President Dr. Johnson,” said Dr. Thurman with kindly emotion, “is one of the greatest of your admirers.” He explained how the situation in the Southern States was still difficult as the flower of the aristocratic Whites were all killed in the War of 1861–64 and as soon as the armies of occupation moved to the North the economic structure was paralysed, leaving the whole structure in the hands of the poor Whites who smarted under the economic competition of the Negro.
“Is the prejudice against colour growing or dying out?” was one of the questions Gandhiji asked. “It is difficult to say,” said Dr. Thurman, “because in one place things look much improved, whilst in another the outlook is still dark. Among many of the Southern White students there is a disposition to improve upon the attitude of their forbears, and the migration occasioned by the World War did contribute appreciably to break down the barriers. But the economic question is acute everywhere, and in many of the industrial centres in Middle West the prejudice against the Negro shows itself in its ugliest form. Among the masses of workers there is a great amount of tension, which is quite natural, when the White thinks that the Negro’s very existence is a threat to his own.”
“Is the union between Negroes and the Whites recognized by law?” was another question. “25 States have laws definitely against these unions, and I have had to sign a bond of 500 dollars to promise that I would not register any such union,” said Mr. Carrol who is a pastor in Salem. “But,” said Dr. Thurman, “there has been a lot of intermixture of races as for 300 years or more the Negro woman had no control over her body.”
But it was now the friends’ turn to ask, and Mrs. Thurman, nobly sensitive to the deeper things of the spirit, broke her silence now and then and put searching questions. “Did the South African Negro take any part in your movement?” was the very first question Dr. Thurman asked. “No,” said Gandhiji, “I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause. They would not have understood tho technique of our struggle nor could they have seen the purpose or utility of non-violence.”
This led to a very interesting discussion of the state of Christianity among the South African Negroes and Gandhiji explained at great length why Islam scored against Christianity there. The talk seemed to appeal very much to Dr. Thurman, who is a professor of comparative religion. “We are often told,” said Dr. Thurman, “that but for the Arabs there would have been no slavery. I do not believe it.” “No,” said Gandhiji, “it is not true at all. For the moment a slave accepts Islam be obtains equality with his master, and there are several instances of this in history.” The whole discussion led to many a question and cross-question during which the guests had an occasion to see that Gandhiji’s principle of equal respect for all religions was no theoretical formula but a practical creed.
Now the talk centered on a discussion which was the main thing that had drawn the distinguished members to Gandhiji.
“Is non-violence from your point of view a form of direct action?” inquired Dr. Thurman. “It is not one form, it is the only form,” said Gandhiji. “I do not of course confine the words ‘direct action’ to their technical meaning. But without a direct active expression of it, non-violence to my mind is meaningless. It is the greatest and the activest force in the world. One cannot be passively non-violent. In fact ‘non-violence’ is a term I had to coin in order to bring out the root meaning of Ahimsa. In spite of the negative particle ‘non’ it is no negative force. Superficially we are surrounded in life by strife and bloodshed, life living upon life. But some great seer, who ages ago penetrated the centre of truth, said: It is not through strife and violence, but through non-violence that man can fulfil his destiny and his duty to his fellow creatures. It is a force which is more positive than electricity and more powerful than even ether. At the centre of non-violence is a force which is self-acting. Ahimsa means ‘love’ in the Pauline sense, and yet something more than the ‘love’ defined by St. Paul, although I know St. Paul’s beautiful definition is good enough for all practical purposes. Ahimsa includes the whole creation, and not only human. Besides love in the English language has other connotations too, and so I was compelled to use the negative word. But it does not, as I have told you, express a negative force, but a force superior to all the forces put together. One person who can express Ahimsa in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality.
Q. And is it possible for any individual to achieve this?
Gandhiji: Certainly. If there was any exclusiveness about it, I should reject it at once.
Q. Any idea of possession is foreign to it?
Gandhiji: Yes. It possesses nothing, therefore it possesses everything.
Q. Is it possible for a single human being to resist the persistent invasion of the quality successfully?
Gandhiji: It is possible. Perhaps your question is more universal than you mean. Isn’t it possible, you mean to ask, for one single Indian for instance to resist the exploitation of 300 million Indians? Or do you mean the onslaught of the whole world against a single individual personally?
Dr. Thurman: Yes, that is one half of the question. I wanted to know if one man can hold the whole violence at bay?
Gandhiji: If he cannot, you must take it that he is not a true representative of Ahimsa. Supposing I cannot produce a single instance in life of a man who truly converted his adversary, I would then say that is because no one had yet been found to express Ahimsa in its fulness.
Q. Then it overrides all other forces?
Gandhiji: Yes, it is the only true force in life.
“Forgive now the weakness of this question,” said Dr. Thurman, who was absolutely absorbed in the discussion.” Forgive the weakness, but may I ask how are we to train individuals or communities in this difficult art?
Gandhiji: There is no royal road, except through living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon. Of course the expression in one’s own life presupposes great study, tremendous perseverence, and thorough cleansing of one’s self of all the impurities. If for mastering of the physical sciences you have to devote a whole life-time, how many life-times may be needed for mastering the greatest spiritual force that mankind has known? But why worry even if it means several life-time? For if this is the only permanent thing in life, if this is the only thing that counts, then whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent. Seek ye first the the Kingdom of Heaven and everything else shall be added unto you. The Kingdom of Heaven is Ahimsa.
Mrs. Thurman had restrained herself until now. But she could not go away without asking the question with which she knew she would be confronted any day. “How am I to act, supposing my own brother was lynched before my very eyes?”
“There is such a thing as self-immolation” said Gandhiji. “Supposing I was a Negro, and my sister was ravished by a White or lynched by a whole community, what would be my duty?—I ask myself. And the Answer comes to me: I must not wish ill to these, but neither must I co-operate with them. It may be that ordinarily I depend on the lynching community for my livelihood. I refuse to co-operate with them, refuse even to touch the food that comes from them and I refuse to co-operate with even my brother Negroes who tolerate the wrong. That is the self-immolation I mean. I have often in my life resorted to the plan. Of course a mechanical act of starvation will mean nothing. One’s faith must remain undimmed whilst life ebbs out minute by minute. But I am a very poor specimen of the practice of non-violence, and my answer may not convince you. But I am striving very hard, and even if I do not succeed fully in this life, my faith will not diminish.”
Mrs. Thurman is a soulful singer, and Dr. Thurman would not think of going away without leaving with us something to treasure in our memory. We sat enraptured as she gave us the two famous Negro spirituals—‘Were you there, when they crucified my Lord’, and ‘We are climbing Jacob’s ladder’—which last suited the guests and hosts equally, as it gave expression to the deep-seated hope and aspiration in the breast of every oppressed community to climb higher and higher until the goal was won.
And now came the parting. “We want you to come to America,” said the guests with an insistence, the depth of love behind which could be measured as Mrs. Thurman reinforced the request with these words: “We want you not for White America, but for the Negroes; we have many a problem that cries for solution, and we need you badly.” “How I wish I could.” said Gandhiji, “but I would have nothing to give you unless I had given an ocular demonstration here of all that I have been saying. I must make good the message here before I bring it to you. I do not say that I am defeated, but I have still to perfect myself. You may be sure that the moment I feel the call within me I shall not hesitate.”
Dr. Thurman explained that the Negroes were ready to receive the message. “Much of the peculiar background of our own life in America is our own interpretation of the Christian religion. When one goes through the pages of the hundreds of Negro spirituals, striking things are brought to my mind which remind me of all that you have told us today.”
“Well,” said Gandhiji, bidding good-bye to them, “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”