Thurman and Mays: Two Black men who came face to face with Mahatma Gandhi 

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Rev. Benjamin Mays

JANS – Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of truth and nonviolence, he never met India’s most renowned spiritual leader. However, two of his mentors did: Revs. Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981) and Benjamin Mays (1894-1984).

Thurman was one of America’s  greatest philosophers of religion and a principal architect of the civil rights movement; Mays, a distinguished educator and social justice advocate.

Rev. Howard Washington Thurman

In 1935, while a professor at Howard University, a group of Christian students in India invited Thurman to lead a six-month speaking tour on Christianity at Indian universities. He accepted with the hope of meeting Gandhi.

In 1936, Thurman, joined by his wife Sue and three other Black Americans, set out on a “pilgrimage of friendship” to India, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was during this visit that he would meet Mahatma Gandhi, who at the time was leading a nonviolent struggle of independence from British rule.

In Gandhi’s final words to the delegation, he prophesized, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

At the urging of Thurman, Dr. Benjamin Mays, then dean of Howard University’s School of Religion, also traveled to India to meet with Gandhi. When he arrived back in the states (1937) he wrote: “The Negro people have much to learn from the Indians. The Indians have learned what we have not learned. They have learned how to sacrifice for a principle. They have learned how to sacrifice position, prestige, economic security, and even life itself for what they consider a righteous and respectable cause.”

Mays would go on to champion civil rights causes as president of Morehouse College, a post he held while Martin Luther King Jr. was a student there. 

Gandhi taught the world community that because nonviolence is active mostly in a spiritual sense, it is invisible. The action is spiritual work taking place inside a person – such as the work of overcoming anger or of learning to love – and that action cannot be seen. 

Gandhi told Benjamin Mays, that “invisible” work is “ceaseless.” It is ceaseless because, as Gandhi told Howard Thurman, it requires the constant practice of nonviolent living.

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Thurman and Mays: Two Black men who came face to face with Mahatma Gandhi 

By Jackson Advocate News Service
January 15, 2024