The two of us returned from this year’s bipartisan pilgrimage to Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma inspired by the threads of history that run through the 115th Congress. Past generations would marvel that our current Congress includes both a civil rights leader who was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and also the grandson of Amarnath Vidyalankar, a freedom fighter who spent the early 1940s in jail as part of Gandhi’s independence movement.
The trip’s purpose is to remember the sacrifices of Martin Luther King Jr., especially marking the 50th year of his assassination, and all the unsung civil rights heroes who risked their lives for equality.
The intertwined freedom movements of both Gandhi and King have deeply American roots. Back in the 19th century, elements in our young nation drummed up support for war against the nation of Mexico. A minority stood up against the frenzy, including Henry David Thoreau, who put this own freedom at stake. He drew a line in the sand, publicly declaring that “I refuse to support the war.” He denied the government his tax debts in protest, and was subsequently jailed.
Decades later, across the world, a young man living in South Africa resented the second-class status attributed to his Indian heritage. Gandhi found a copy of Thoreau’s essay and acted on his example. Kicked out of a “white only” train car, Gandhi went to jail in protest. He returned to India to lead the movement to end British colonialism, where his protests landed him in jail again and again.
During the 1950s, James Morris Lawson Jr. found inspiration in the path blazed by Thoreau and Gandhi and chose to serve two years in prison for refusing military service. He traveled to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent protest theory, satyagraha. He went on to convince King to adopt the Gandhian philosophy, move south, and help lead a movement for freedom. Lawson also taught many students in Tennessee, who would take part in the freedom rides, about Gandhi’s techniques.
The connection between Gandhi and American civil rights deserves more recognition. At King’s home in Montgomery, we learned he always carried two books with him — the Bible and “The Gandhi Reader.” A picture of Gandhi was prominently displayed in King’s study.
Later we visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King preached, and listened to his son affirm his father’s view that Gandhi “is the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”
We also need to recognize how the civil rights movement paved the way for families from the Indian subcontinent to come to America. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 are the seminal achievements of the movement, the movement also led to the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 that opened our borders to non-Europeans by eliminating the race-based quota system.
Today, Indian Americans in Silicon Valley should reflect on the struggles that opened doors for them and help make their contributions to furthering equality. In many ways, technology rights are the new civil rights. Tech leaders must strive to close the digital divide and provide a foundation of economic opportunity to minority communities for the jobs of the future. As Apple CEO Tim Cook observed in 2013, “Each generation is presented with its own unique opportunities. Set forth your tiny ripple of hope. You might just find you can change the arc of history.”
In many ways, our joint pilgrimage represents history coming full circle. Without Gandhi, there would not have been a King. Without King, there would not have been an Obama. Without Obama, there would not have been a historic class of Indian Americans elected to Congress. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, aware that an America that has been shaped, at her best, by great spiritual movements, may be an America that is poised to usher in a freer and fairer world.
US Representative John Lewis represents Georgia’s 5th congressional district. US Representative Ro Khanna represents California’s 17th congressional district.