For many Indians, our first tryst with Martin Luther King Jr. came about not from a textbook or classroom discussion highlighting his figurehead role in the American civil rights movement. It usually happened on account of an elocution competition in school, ahead of which enthusiastic parents would be seen tutoring their kids with lines from King’s “I have a dream.” For all the learning by rote this process entailed, many parts of the storied speech — which turned 50 this week — including its titular lines, were actually ad-libbed by the great orator. Delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, King’s stirring speech on persistent racial inequality in America singularly changed its social and political landscape. It brought the preacher widespread international recognition as a rights activist and was also instrumental in King being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. What made his speech iconic was the pragmatism it evoked through fiery rhetoric: at a time when violence against blacks had reached a new high, Martin Luther King asked them to revolt against injustice not by “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” but on “the high plane of dignity and discipline.” King’s dream epitomised his larger efforts to ground civil disobedience in the rule of law, which the Lyndon B. Johnson administration channelled to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That King was influenced by the Indian freedom movement, particularly Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent resistance against colonial rule, is no revelation. He also stood in solidarity with his Indian contemporaries in their struggle for social justice. In a 1959 essay for Ebony — the pre-eminent magazine for blacks in America — penned soon after his brief visit to India, King identified, with remarkable insight, the three major problems facing Indian society: the lack of urban housing, food security and rural employment. What’s more, he endorsed a leadership role for India in the international community: King’s letter condoling the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru praised the latter as a “mediator and honest broker” whose “policy of non-alignment” allowed emerging powers to “play a constructive role in world affairs.” Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to empowering the racially subjugated through legitimate and irreversible means. If he dreamt of equality among Americans, King had a lesser known dream for India too: that it show the world “a democracy could provide good living for everyone […] without surrendering to a dictatorship of either the ‘right’ or ‘left’.” Would it be too much for our political class to aspire to this vision?