Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two personal remembrances: King and Gandhi

[This post was published January 16, 2007. I am reposting this year because it remains appropriate for the King holiday.]

[Make that "Three Remembrances..."
Leila Abu-Saba's mom was part a civil rights activist who spent honorable time in jail and received a letter of appreciation from Dr. King. Go read.]

Yesterday's King holiday evoked two personal remembrances from unrelated sources worth noting. On All Things Considered last evening, Michael Rose, director of the Atlanta History Center spoke with Michele Norris about having seen Dr. King in Miami in 1965...

I was with my friend, Gary Herwald. We and a bunch of high school buddies had come down from the North for out last Spring Vacation (it wasn't yet called "spring break") before going off to college.

Gary and I were standing in a little shopping concourse at the hotel just wandering around. There was a man looking in a window of one of the stores. Among all the people in casual resort wear, he was the only person wearing a business suit. He also was the only African-American.

Gary said to me, "Is that who I think it is?"

I said I thought so. And so we walked over. Gary was the one who worked up the nerve to ask him, "Excuse me, sir. Are you Martin Luther King?"

And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that yes, he was. He wasn't that hard to spot. He was coming off a pretty good year. He had started 1964 on the cover of Time Magazine as Man of the Year. He had ended 1964 by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On this day in the Florida hotel he was thirty-six years old.

He was alone. Gary and I were the only people to approach him. Gary said, "I just want to tell you how much we admire you."

Dr. King, smiling and making a small joke, said "You boys aren't from Florida, are you?"

We talked for a few minutes. Nothing earth-shattering. And there was no way to know, of course, that three Springs later he would be dead....

This little eight-minute clip is worth that much of your time. (After all I took longer than that to find it, blog it, and type out part of the transcript). It illustrates how deeply just a momentary encounter can effect someone for a lifetime. Could there be any connection between this encounter and Michael Rose's current job?

The connection between Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi needs no explanation. And long ago, as a young man stationed in India, Mort Reichek recalls the time he was able to catch a glimpse of Gandhi...

I recall walking on Chowringhee one day in the fall of 1944 when the atmosphere was anything but tranquil. As I passed the Maidan I encountered an enormous mob of people crowded into the park. The noise was overwhelming. The following day, the local newspapers estimated that at least a million people had been crammed into the Maidan.

I cautiously approached the crowd to find out what has happening. I quickly learned that a thousand or more yards in front of us, the legendary Mahatma Gandhi was standing on a raised platform and making a speech. Gandhi, the major political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, had been released from a British prison several months earlier. He rarely visited Calcutta, and his scheduled appearance that day had produced the enormous audience that I saw.

Scores of loudspeakers had been installed across the Maidan's grounds so that the crowds far removed from Gandhi's platform might hear him speak. I assume that he was speaking in Bengali or Hindi. But I doubt whether the locals packed in at the edge of the park near me could possibly hear Gandhi's words. Nor was it even possible for any of them to clearly see "the Mahatma" so far off in the distance. (Gandhi's first name was actually Mohandas, but he was popularly called Mahatma--meaning "great soul"--a fitting title for a man who was worshipped by India's masses as a living saint.)

A man standing next to me offered me the use of his binoculars so that I might catch a glimpse of Gandhi, who was standing on the platform so far away. At 5'10" I was taller than most of the people crowded around me. I was therefore able to see this great man in person, although the view was not exactly well focused.

Gandhi was famed for preaching the doctrine of non-violence as the means of gaining India's freedom from British rule. (I am writing this as the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which seems so appropriate since Gandhi was the inspiration for Dr. King's own political philosophy.)

Indeed, the next day's newspapers reported that Gandhi's speech called for the Indian people to avoid violent action in their struggle for independence. Ironically, his message meant nothing to the young Hindu fanatic who assassinated the 79-year old Gandhi four years later because of the Mahatma's conciliatory attitude towards India's Muslim minority.

As in the case of Michael Rose's encounter with Dr. King, this other equally famous man was to be assassinated four years later. These two stories, though from very different origins, seem to have striking similarities. And in the Cotton Patch tradition I offer them to my readers as Living Epistles about Saints that still walk among us. I am ecumenical enough to believe that the Word of God is not always transmitted by preachers, or even Christians. These two stories illustrate that belief.

An afterthought:

The Octogenarian mentions Mother Theresa in passing and her work in Calcutta. I have the privilege even now of knowing a wonderful woman who served in India many years ago as a medical missionary of the Church. She told me that when Mother Theresa began her ministry she had to learn, among other things, how to do hypodermic injections and it was to the medical missionaries she came to learn that skill. You don't have to go far to find a saint, you know. You just have to pay attention and look for clues.

Whenever I am tempted to abandon principles that the rest of the world might dismiss as being unrealistic or overly-idealistic, I remind myself that in an overwhelmingly evil world God is still at work.


Mortart said...

Thanks for your kind words.

Heather Flanagan said...

I think you would be interested in this video about Bernie Meyer who has traveled the world portraying Gandhi: