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For this week’s Piece of History:
Today is the 72nd anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi’s assassination. Let us commemorate his extraordinary achievements by tracing exactly how his legacy came to influence so many social movements in the United States of the 20th century. One of the earliest places in the United States where Gandhi’s ideas took root was East Harlem. Several of the members of this particular community went on to become leaders in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1950s, 60s, and beyond.
Founded in 1940, the Harlem Ashram was an attempt to unify Gandhi’s teachings of satyagraha (“action based on truth”) and ahimsa (“action without violence”) with the Christian pacifist tradition. The founders, Ralph Temlin and Jay Holmes Smith, were two white men who had formerly served as Methodist missionaries in India. There, they had each been deeply inspired by the Gandhian movement -- so much so that they were both expelled from India by the British government for refusing to cease their pro-independence work. Back in the United States, they continued work in nonviolent direct action, eventually forming the Ashram in Harlem specifically in order to organize with local black leaders. Together, they all worked to build a multiracial community to exploring ways of using nonviolent action against racial injustice.
As the members of the Ashram organized community groups like the Non-violence Direct Action Committee, some African-Americans began to develop an understanding of how to apply the lessons of the Indian experiment in nonviolence to the struggle against Jim Crow.
One influential member of the Non-violence Direct Action Committee was Krishnalal Jethalal Shridharani, a veteran of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March and interpreter of Gandhi’s teachings for over ten years. Shridharani’s work culminated in his book War Without Violence, reaching a wide audience in the United States and becoming invaluable to spreading Gandhi’s message. Early nonviolence trainings in the United States were developed using War Without Violence. More than giving just a detailed explanation of Gandhi’s philosophy, Shridharani also gave sharp criticism to the messianic interpretation of Gandhi so common in American pacifist circles at the time. For many Americans of the time, Shridharani was instrumental in demystifying Mahatma Gandhi from a modern-day Hindu Jesus to a strategic revolutionary leader of a mass movement.
As history shows, the Harlem Ashram became an incubator of American Gandhism and the civil rights movement. Here, future leaders cut their teeth doing work like helping black newcomers from the South find housing, investigating police violence during strikes, desegregating the local YMCA, and creating a credit union run by and for African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities who made up most of the East Harlem neighborhood. Ruth Reynolds, a strong supporter of the Puerto Rican independence movement, stayed at the Ashram. So did Pauli Murray, who would become prominent at the nexus of civil rights and the women’s movement. Bayard Rustin, whose outsized influence in the peace and civil rights movements has only recently come to the fore, lived nearby and visited frequently while working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). James Farmer, who later became a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) along with Rustin, and then a leader of the 1961 Freedom Rides, received his first trainings in nonviolent direct action at the Harlem Ashram. Farmer, however, was one of several who would ultimately leave the Ashram due to disagreements with the ascetic nature of the commune.
Although the Harlem Ashram closed in 1948, one could vigorously argue that the Ashram was incredibly successful in so far as it trained and inspired some of the first Americans (many of them African-Americans) in Gandhian nonviolent direct action. Some of those same Americans then went on to refit the practice into the American context and spread it across the country. It is worth noting that though Gandhi’s teachings have been applied in multiple social movements over the years, none have been more successful or well-known as the American civil rights movement -- in part, perhaps, due to some of the civil rights leaders’ early critical engagement with, training in, and practice of Gandhian nonviolent direct action at the Harlem Ashram.
The Voluntown Peace Trust shares significant history with the Harlem Ashram. Ralph Temlin served as a resource person at the 1960 nonviolence training in New London, which Barbara Deming wrote about (see our post from 11/7/19). Ruth Reynolds was close to the Community for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), from which VPT got its start. Marj Swann was trained in 1942 in the same nonviolent methods that James Farmer and others learned and continued to develop at the Harlem Ashram. Gandhi called his autobiography, My Experiment in Truth. The people of the Harlem Ashram continued this experiment by bringing Gandhian methods to the American context -- and while we honor their work, it is far from over, and so we must continue to experiment with the power of nonviolent action.
As we move on to Black History Month, we will continue to highlight lesser-known but vitally important African-Americans who helped change the course of history.
For more information on the Harlem Ashram, watch the first part of the “Roots of Nonviolent Direct Action Training” video from the War Resisters League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jprdqKEBGvU&t=790s
Additional reading on the Harlem Ashram can be found at the following source links: