On the afternoon of February 10, 1959, two dozen reporters waited eagerly in the lobby of Delhi’s Janpath Hotel, near India Gate, to interview a jet-lagged American guest who had come to India for a special, deeply significant visit. Just a few hours after he landed at the Palam airport after a six-day journey via New York, Paris, Zurich and Bombay, a press conference had been set up for civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Before the media contingent, which also had two American reporters, could ask him anything, King read out a prepared statement. “For a long while I have looked forward to visiting your great country,” he said. “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim. This is because India means to me Mahatma Gandhi, a truly great personality of the ages. India also means to me Pandit Nehru and his wise statesmanship and intellectuality that are recognised the world over.”

The questions at the press conference ranged from the enquiries about common attitudes that African-Americans had towards Africans to King’s culinary habits. “Does your concept of non-violence include vegetarianism?” a reporter asked the American leader, who replied in the negative. On this pilgrimage, there would be many questions from admirers and those sceptical of non-violence alike.

Over the next month, King, who was accompanied by his wife Coretta and his biographer Lawrence Reddick, would travel across India, visiting cultural and religious sites and meeting a range of people from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Jawaharlal Nehru to eminent social activists and African students in India.

Grand welcome

Six decades later, the idea of King’s India trip may look like a well-curated diplomatic move by the American establishment, but it didn’t not quite have the blessings of the US State Department, which had to be wary of the bad publicity that the racial injustices in their country were generating in the newly independent and former colonised nations of Africa and Asia.

Unlike the so-called jazz diplomacy, under which African-American musicians were sent by the US government to Asia to promote American soft power and show the country in a more positive light, King’s trip needed private sponsorship.

“King secured funds for his trip to India from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” according to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. “Co-sponsors of King’s trip, the American Friends Service Committee and the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Gandhi National Memorial Fund), headed by Secretary G Ramachandran, arranged King’s meetings with Indian officials and Gandhian activists.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., during a press conference in New Delhi in 1959. Credit: US Embassy, New Delhi

The Indian government and civil society extended almost all the courtesies a visiting head of state would be offered.

“The people showered upon us the most generous hospitality imaginable,” King wrote in an article for Ebony. “We were graciously received by the Prime Minister, the President and the Vice President of the nation: members of Parliament, Governors and Chief Ministers of various Indian states, writers, professors, social reformers and at least one saint.”

Since the pictures of his visit were on the front page of most national newspapers, he would be recognised and approached by the public in planes, markets and when he went on morning walks. Even pilots came out of the cockpit to ask him for his autograph. “Virtually every door was open to us,” King wrote, adding that they had to turn down several invitations as they travelled the length and breadth of India.

He held numerous discussions with people across the country. “I spoke before university groups and public meetings all over India,” King said. “Because of the keen interest Indians have in the race problem these meetings were usually packed.”

Indian social problems

The Indian public developed a liking for Negro spirituals, a genre of music that merged African cultural heritage with the experiences of bondage of slavery. Coretta King would sing at so many meetings that it prompted the American leader to say that in India she sang as much as he lectured. In a jam-packed month of extensive travel, King travelled to Bihar, where he met Vinoba Bhave and Jayprakash Narayan.

“I shall not forget the occasion when the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama movement of non-violent resistance to racial segregation, met Vinoba with his wife,” Jayaprakash Narayan wrote. “Jim Bristol of the Quaker Centre, Delhi, it was, I think, who in introducing Mrs. King spoke of her proficiency in music and suggested that she might sing some hymns and Negro spirituals for Vinoba. Everyone was delighted at the suggestion. I looked at Vinoba and wondered loudly if he knew what the Negro spirituals were. We were all startled, most of all the Americans, when Vinoba, as if in answer, raised his ever-downcast eyes towards Mrs King and intoned softly, ‘Were you there, were you there, when they crucified my Lord?’ When Mrs. King sang that spiritual, it had an added poignancy for us.”

King was so impressed with Bhave that the next day, he marched with the leader of the Bhoodan movement for several miles in a show of support and solidarity with the bloodless movement for land reforms. After returning to the United States, he referred to Bhave as the “sainted leader of the land reform movement”.

It would have been hard for King to not notice the rampant poverty and stark social inequalities that were rampant in an India that had just attained independence 12 years earlier. Just over a week after he returned to his country, King held a press conference in New York City, where he called on the West to “extended generous economic and technical aid to India immediately”.

King insisted that the aid should come no strings attached, but warned of the people of India turning to communism or a military dictatorship if its problems of unemployment, food shortages and housing were not solved by democratic means.

“America and the West should help India because she needs help; not as a part of an anti-communist campaign, even though the effect of this aid will help save one of the great nations of the world for democracy,” he said.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers remarks at the Indian Council of World Affairs. Credit: US Embassy, New Delhi

Question of Untouchability

King was well aware of the problem of the practice of Untouchability and the discrimination that was faced by Dalits in India. He compared the treatment meted out to Dalits with the way African-Americans were treated in the United States. At the New York City press conference in March 1959, while acknowledging the Dalit struggle, he praised India’s integration efforts and said India appeared to be integrating its Dalits faster than the Americans were integrating the African-American community.

“Both countries have federal laws against discrimination but in India the leaders of government, of religious, educational and other institutions have publicly endorsed the integration laws,” he said. “This has not been done so largely in America. For example, today no leader in India would dare to make a public endorsement of Untouchability. But in America, every day some leader endorses racial segregation.”

Although King acknowledged that he was treated with the greatest admiration, respect and affection in India, one particular incident left him deeply wounded. On a day the red carpet was extended in Thiruvananthapuram by Kerala’s democratically elected communist chief minister EMS Namboodiripad, with an elaborate luncheon, King went to a local school, where most of the children were Dalit.

When introducing King to the children, the school’s principal said something that shocked the American civil rights leader: “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow Untouchable from the United States of America.” This incident only became public knowledge six years after King’s visit to India. At a church sermon in July 1965, King repeated the principal’s statement to the faithful and added, “And for a moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an Untouchable ....”

At the sermon, King said the incident made him think of the African-Americans who were living in poverty in an affluent society. “I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attending inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities. And I said to myself, ‘Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.’”

One with Gandhi

The month-long trip to India was all about paying respects to Mahatma Gandhi. From the time he landed at the Palam airport, where he was welcomed with garlands by G Ramachandran and Sucheta Kripalani of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, King used every opportunity to visit sites associated with Gandhi. One of his first meetings was with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s first health minister who worked as Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years.

King also visited Rajghat, where he was so moved that he knelt and prayed for a long time.

Other spots on King’s Gandhi pilgrimage included the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. His most memorable experience, however, was staying a night at the Mani Bhavan in Bombay, which was Gandhi’s main base between 1917 and 1934. “To have the opportunity of sleeping in the house where Gandhiji slept is really an experience I will never forget,” King wrote in the Mani Bhavan’s guestbook.

During his farewell speech at the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi on March 9, 1959, King said, “The spirit of Gandhi is much stronger today than some people believe.” He would repeat these words in his Ebony article. King added the trip had a great personal impact.

“It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land, to talk with son, his grandsons, his cousin and other relatives; to share the reminisces of his close comrades; to visit his ashrama, to see the countless memorials for him and finally to lay a wreath on his entombed ashes at Rajghat,” he wrote.

King left India with a great resolve to continue his peaceful struggle for civil rights in the United States. “I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom,” he wrote

Six decades after King’s India trip, both the Dalits in India and the African-Americans continue their struggle for equality.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.