When Martin Luther King Jr visited Kerala

It was I think around the year 1953, that MLK discovered the light in the teachings of the Gandhi. Many years later he recounted thus – ‘The inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhi method of non violence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in this struggle for freedom’. He also explained in his works about how Juliett Morgan first compared the Indian and the Negro struggle, writing about the bus protest to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser. She did not survive the furious public onslaught and died soon after, in 1957. But she brought the name of the little brown saint, the Mahatma to the American lips. And later MLK accounted his struggle in simple terms ‘Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, Gandhi furnished the method’. Interestingly King Jr was also one of the few who observed another Gandhi technique, as he observed “Mahatma Gandhi never had more than one hundred persons absolutely committed to his philosophy. But with this small group of devoted followers, he galvanized the whole of India.”

One fine day he came into contact with such a follower of Mahatma Gandhi who was convinced that MLK should visit India to see all of this for himself. After discussions following the unfortunate incident involving the Curry letter opener stabbing, MLK Jr finally decided to tour India. In February and March 1959, the 30 year old Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, traveled throughout India. King aptly told a group of reporters gathered at the airport, ‘‘To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim”.

While much of King’s visit to the big cities of India is well remembered and documented, most may not be aware of his days spent in Trivandrum and the glorious weekend that King and his wife spent at Kanyakumari. It would also surprise many, that the person who convinced King to visit the land of Gandhi was a Malayali, whom very few would remember today, a man they should actually revere, named G Ramachandran. Read on, for I am going to take you to the last week of Feb 1959, when King was to fly in from Madurai to Trivandrum. The date was 22nd Feb 1959.

King flew out from Madurai destined for Trivandrum, after visiting the Gandhigram started by G Ramachandran and seeing the (Madurai Meenakshi?) temple. A crowd was waiting at the Trivandrum airport, to greet them with bouquets of flowers and garlands. EMS Namboothiripad, the chief minister of Kerala, the only state that Nehru’s Congress did not rule then, had hosted a luncheon in his honor. EMS had just returned after spending several weeks in Moscow, but he arrived half an hour earlier than the plan to chat alone with King. The luncheon was attended by many dignitaries, including Anna Chandy, the first woman to be appointed High Court judge in India. Noted Gandhian P. Gopinathan Nair, recalled recently that he was also there to receive MLK Jr at the airport. “His wife was also there with him and both of them attended a few functions. And in one of the functions, his wife even sang a song,” Nair recalled.

Many years later, King also recalled a school visit, the school was a school for former untouchables in Trivandrum and the principal had introduced him as a fellow untouchable. ‘I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables .... The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” And for a moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable. But then he reflected on the ‘airtight cage of poverty’ that afflicted African Americans ‘in rat infested unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation who still attended inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities .. And I said to myself, Yes, I am untouchable, and every Negro in America is an untouchable.’

That evening, King and party left for Cape Comorin to see the sunset, to visit the Gandhi shrine where his ashes were cast into the seas, and to take some time off for themselves on the glorious beach. The next day King, Reddick & Bristol swan in the waters of the merging oceans before breakfast. Later they attended a Legislative assembly meeting and afterwards King addressed an overflow crowd. The Kings never forgot the sunset and the moments at he Cape. He was profoundly affected by the visit and included a lengthy part of it in his sermon. The words are beautifully expressed and suffused with beauty that only one who has visited the cape would understand. Here it is in Martin Luther King Jr’s own words (extracted from his sermon)….

In India Mrs King and I spent a lovely weekend in the State of Karala (let’s forgive him for the misspelling!), the southern most point of that vast continent. While there we visited the beautiful beach on Cape Comorin, which is called "Land's End," because this is actually where the land of India comes to an end. Nothing stretches before you except the broad expanse of rolling waters. This beautiful spot is a point at which meet three great bodies of water, The Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. Seated on a huge rock that slightly protrudes into the ocean, we were enthralled by the vastness of the ocean and its terrifying immensities. As the waves unfolded in almost rhythmic succession, and crashed against the base of the rock in which we were seated, an oceanic music brought sweetness to the ear. To the west we saw the magnificent sun, a great cosmic ball of fire, as it appeared to sink into the very ocean itself. Just as it was almost lost from sight, Mrs King touched me and said, "Look, Martin, Isn't that beautiful!" I looked around and saw the moon, another ball of scintillating beauty. As the sun appeared to be sinking into the ocean, the moon appeared to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfed the earth, but in the east the radiant light of the rising moon shone supreme.

To my wife I said, "This is an analogy of what often happens in life." We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight - moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are the victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light which shines even in the darkness, and "the spear of frustration" is transformed "into a shaft of light."

This would be an unbearable world were God to have only a single light, but we may be consoled that God has two lights: a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light that guides us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls. And so we know that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the darkness as well as the light.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become even darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world. Amen!

Meanwhile, in Kerala, in the year 2009, they have been desperately trying to figure out the identity of that old school which MLK Jr had visited, but it appears that it has long since vanished. The search actually started when MLK’s son MLK III visited India for the 50th centenary celebrations, retracing his fathers steps.

But for all this one must thank G Ramachandran. It was G. Ramachandran (popularly known as GR in those days) who coordinated the month-long visit Martin Luther King, Jr. to India. G.R was then the secretary of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, and later the editor of Indian express and a minister in the Pattam Thanu Pillai cabinet. He later established a school at Neyyatinkara where he hailed from. More about him can be read here.

“It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land,” wrote the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a few months after returning from a month long visit to India in 1959. “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Note: LD Reddick was a Prof of History & JE Bristol was head of the Quaker International center in Delhi. They were two others who accompanied MLK Jr during this trip.

Martin Luther King Jr - (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the African-American civil rights movement. His main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States and he is frequently referenced as a human rights icon today. King is recognized as a martyr by two Christian churches. A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president. King's efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. There, he raised public consciousness of the civil rights movement and established himself as one of the greatest orators in U.S. history.

In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and opposing the Vietnam War, both from a religious perspective. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King, Jr: a profile- By C. Eric Lincoln
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr: Vol 5 Ed Clayborne Carson
The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr By Clayborne Carson
A testament of hope: the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther .By Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King (Jr.), James Melvin Washington
The Stanford university collections
Listen to MLK Jr’s address in New Delhi

Pics – Except for GR’s (SGI), all others from Stanford site, thanks


Destination Infinity said...

When the brightness of the day is gone, there is still hope in the brightness of the moon in the nights and God gives us the strength to face both of them - what brilliant words! This has inspired me to read some of his works/Speeches, some day...

Destination Infinity

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

This is a great compilation of MLK's visit to India and Kerala in particular. Until I read your piece, I had no idea of his visit and his experiences. Thanks for doing this, I am sure a lot of us have been benefited by this historical recollections.

P.N. Subramanian said...

Very interesting. I am passing this on to a Quaker friend of mine.

harimohan said...

maddy ,
it was an eye opener like many of your posts are ,MLK speech was wonderful ,should read more of that ,Tks

Dreamer said...

MLK's words are beautiful. I had no idea that MLK had visited my hometown TVM. I feel that it's good that they did not find the school, or it would have been used to pull of some cheap publicity stunt.

Anonymous said...

Hi Maddy,

I like your blog and am a pretty regular reader. It was disappointing to see that the map of India in this post shows only part of Kashmir with India. Either getting a proper map (as we Indian think :)) was not so convinient, or perhaps you have bit more enlightened views on this matter, I am not being sarcastic, but I can't think of some other suiting word than 'enlighetened'. But while we keep this matter still open, will it be possible for you also to support India view?

Hope you can correct the map (or if it's too tough, remove the Kashmir section from map).

Maddy said...

Thanks anonymous for your sharp observation. I had used a readily available map from the Stanford site. Am arranging to upload a pic which as you suggest is virtually the same pic with the top cropped.

Some of my views on the matter of Kashmir will definitely be discussed another day and btw I am still very Indian in nationality & thought.

Anil Nair said...


Thanks for this excellent note and introduction. MLK was more heard of than read about, and this one makes one try to understand more about him. I feel MLK, and Gandhi, is more talked about in the media now a days - thanks to Mr Obama.

MLK's observation on the moonrise was particularly interesting.


Maddy said...

Thanks Anup, DI and PNS, I was also not really aware of that visit until recently.

Thanks Dreamer & Hari.. I was also taken aback by the thought process that went into the words used in that Sermon. It was fascinating actually, how one arrives at such brilliant conclusions. of course today there are armies of experts and speech writers whoa re behind such gems, but not in MLK's times!!!

Hey Anil.. I enjoy reading and responding to your comments. Not everybody reads all of the voluminous amount of text that I put in, and comment with perspective. thank you for that. Glad to note you enjoyed it.

Maddy said...

Thanks Anup, DI and PNS, I was also not really aware of that visit until recently.

Thanks Dreamer & Hari.. I was also taken aback by the thought process that went into the words used in that Sermon. It was fascinating actually, how one arrives at such brilliant conclusions. of course today there are armies of experts and speech writers whoa re behind such gems, but not in MLK's times!!!

Hey Anil.. I enjoy reading and responding to your comments. Not everybody reads all of the voluminous amount of text that I put in, and comment with perspective. thank you for that. Glad to note you enjoyed it.

Happy Kitten said...

Never knew about this until I read you...

Thanks once again for this piece of history...

stupendousman said...

Hi Maddy,

What a wonderful post? An little known gem of Indian History which you have bought to light here.

I knew Martin Luther King visited India but never knew he visited Kerala and was so impressed by it.

A suggestion, may be you could document all the sadly forgotten Gandhians,I don't think we should lose sight of them. I am ready to help you with your research if you need any help.

Thanks again for the wonderful post.

- Dhiraj
P.S:I must confess, i never thanked you for sending me the document about analysis riots in Gujarat the last time. I must also confess i did not understand the paper properly. Thanks.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Quite informative. I liked the philosophical musings of MLK while at Cape Comorin with his wife.

Siddharth Garud said...

Wow! Nice post. I have been following your post. This post is one of your best.

MLK has been an inspiration to many. It is great to read that he came to our land and drew inspiration for his work in the US.

- Siddharth

Maddy said...

Thanks HK..it was a revelation for me too..

Dhiraj...thanks, I will one by one, in the slow search. And will get in touch with you for assistance. Tell me what was unclear on the Gujarat riots essay, I will help out, you can send me an email...

Murali - I was also so happy reading those fantastic words..let alone writing about it.

Hey Siddharth...Thanks a lot...Lots more on the way, hope you will continue liking them..