W.E.B. DuBois noted in 1903 that, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Sarah Azaransky uses this observation as a starting point for her exploration of black Americans’ encounters with the liberation struggles in colonial India and West Africa in the 1930s — 1950s, what Bayard Rustin has called the “classical” period of the American Civil Rights Movement. The book is an insightful study of how oppressed communities from different faiths and nations shared their knowledge, strategies, and foundational religious beliefs in support of each other’s struggles for justice. Today, as communities around the world continue to work for justice across the “color-line” and other power divides of wealth, gender expression, sexual identity and more, the examples in this book provide templates for solidarity and hope among people of differing religions, countries, colors, and challenges. “This worldwide struggle” is our inheritance, too.
The contribution of Indian activists’ practices of non-violence to the Civil Rights Movement in the US has been well documented. Azaransky’s work digs deeper into the relationships and philosophical/theological interchanges that have so influenced the black freedom movement in the United States. Howard Thurman met Gandhi in India in 1936. He returned to the US catalyzed by Gandhi’s instruction on total non-cooperation with oppressors and wrote of the necessity “to place the struggle for socially transformational nonviolent action in a personal spiritual context and Christian framework.” But Thurman and his American delegation pointed out to Gandhi that he hadn’t included black South Africans in his freedom work there, and they were not satisfied with Gandhi’s explanation that to do so would have weakened that movement. Thurman returned to the US and wrote Jesus and the Disinherited, a direct response both to Gandhi’s exclusion of black South Africans and to a challenge he had received while in India to his ongoing commitment to Christianity in the face of intense Christian racism. Thurman’s book distinguished between Christianity and the religion of Jesus and, reflecting on India’s anti-colonial struggles, connected white supremacy to citizenship privileges and the foundational need to engage whiteness in order to create just and genuine interracial relationships. Azaransky notes that Jesus and the Disinherited was a book that Martin Luther King, Jr. kept with him constantly. Black leaders’ encounters with South Asian resistance movements contributed, writes Azaransky, to the subversion of the idea of “racial uplift ideology that prized respectability.”
Benjamin Mays was another “classical age” leader of the Civil Rights Movement to visit South Asia, and the experience led him to draw parallels between American sharecropping and the almost feudal agricultural structures of India. Mays believed that the transformation of these embedded structures in India indicated the possibility of structural transformation in the US as well. Jim Crow, he came to think, was a kind of colonialism, that the Indian independence struggle had much to teach the American Civil Rights Movement, and that the very ways in which one thinks about God comprise the necessary root of social and economic change. By the conclusion of his travels he was noting the similarities between the justice movements of African-descended people in the US, Christians in South Africa, Hindus in India, Aboriginal peoples in Australia, and Jews in Europe. John Thatamanil, Sarah Azaransky’s colleague at Union Theological Seminary, describes these encounters as ones of “interreligious receptivity,” in which the encounter with another religion and its struggles leads not to appropriation but to genuine instruction about another tradition and to translation of its helpful practices into new modalities for one’s own.
Bayard Rustin also visited India, where he came to understand that the nationalistic goals of the Indian independence movement were not helpful to the black American context, and that such a separatist goal could only lead, in the US, to violence. Yet he also was transfixed by the understanding that “failed” non-violent struggles (such as Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes, which neither ended the spread of slavery nor stopped the Mexican-American war) did in fact bear fruit. Thoreau’s witness gave impetus to the future Indian independence movement. Even if “results” aren’t immediately visible, seeds are planted and the work one does contributes to future stages of resistance to injustice. William Stuart Nelson concluded, after his own visit to India in 1947, that even when nonviolence might fail, “something that could be lived and believed in was more true than something that might or might not have happened.”
Azaransky notes that the learning that happened in India did not end with its applications in the Civil Rights Movement. African students at American HBCUs, such as Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria) and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), took their experiences in the US of the black freedom movement back to their countries. “This worldwide struggle” is one of continual pollination, exchange, and mutual support.
Azaransky also describes a shift in thinking within the Civil Rights Movement after the Second World War – a move away from internationalism and “common cause with colonized people around the world.” It was a shift towards the idea of American exceptionalism, including as “models of race advancement.” Participants in the Civil Rights Movement began to see themselves less as students of other movements and more as the world’s teacher. This was consistent, she notes, with a broader American turn towards “global ambitions.”
For those of us who today are dismayed by the violence sometimes employed by resisters of violence (the Antifa movement, etc.), This Worldwide Struggle is a particularly timely read. It describes an era of intentional and critical engagement between religious communities and struggles for justice, encounters that left all parties with more nuanced strategies and deeper commitments, not only to their own struggles but to the interconnected movements of others. Solidarity, strategy, and a refusal to employ the structural, philosophical, practical, and theologically violent tactics of oppressors – these commitments would significantly strengthen the multiple and interconnected resistance movements that endeavor to transform societies today.
— Alison Boden, for the Editors