The model seen above is of the bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi located on the ground floor of Rose Library at James Madison University. It was gifted to the university in 2008 by the government of India in recognition of the work done by the school’s Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Non-Violence. The program is run by the Justice Studies department, promoting justice and non-violence through education and engagement. This statue was the first of Gandhi to be erected in the state of Virginia. Gandhi is depicted in mid-stride with his right hand grasping a walking stick and a kindly expression on his face. The statue’s face is angled downward, allowing the viewer to meet Gandhi’s gaze. In a 1945 interview with Denton J. Brooks, a reporter for the Chicago Defender, Brooks asked the Mahatma if he had a message for the African-Americans struggling for equality in America. Gandhi responded with one of his famous quotes, “My life is its own message,” a shortened version of which is inscribed on the pedestal beneath his feet.
The statue captures Gandhi during the famous Salt March which was a non-violent protest of the British salt tax on Indian citizens. Gandhi and his followers marched for 25 days to the sea to gather their own salt, which was illegal. This event inspired millions of other Indians to adopt Gandhi ‘s non-violent methods of civil disobedience. The Salt March was the peak of Gandhi’s nonviolent movement and led to the Independence of India from Britain. The simple cloths seen on the statue reflect Gandhi’s efforts to show that he was working for and with the average person.
Rather than a portrait or written description, the statue allows for a more personal experience with Mahatma Gandhi. While statues of Mary reminds Catholics of their belief in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the Gandhi statue reminds observers of individual resilience in the face of oppressive systems. The statue’s physicality and location places Gandi in the everyday lives of those who may be unfamiliar with his message.
In the context of James Madison University, the statue stands as a symbol of nonviolent solutions to life’s problems. However, to the African-Americans of the civil rights movement, Mahatma Gandhi was a prophet. Just like the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Civil Rights movement was a religious revival. The earlier revivals that sought to rid American society of its evils through “abolitionism, populism, feminism, and the labor movement”, while the civil rights movement worked to rid a Christian-based American society of its racial inequality (Chappell 87). Although Mahatma Gandhi was not a Christian, those who were, admired how his faith enabled him to peacefully fight off an oppressive force. Rev. John Haynes Holmes, founding member of the NAACP and Unitarian pastor, greatly praised Gandhi from the pulpit, stating “when I think of Gandhi, I think of Jesus Christ. He lives his life; he speaks his word; he suffers, strives and will someday nobly die”(Holmes). African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender celebrated his actions, writing that Gandhi “believes in the doctrine taught by Christ and turns the other cheek twice and yet again if necessary” (Chabot 48).
Martin Luther King Jr., key leader of the civil rights movement stated, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change” (King, My Trip to the Land of Gandhi). King re-purposed Gandhi’s concept of civil resistance, Satyagraha, and used it in the form of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. Other important civil rights leaders like John Lewis and James Lawson, credited Gandhi as inspiration for his actions. The leaders of the civil rights movement applied Gandhian principles to their own Christian faith to successfully gain racial equality in the United States, just as King said, “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.” (King, Autobiography).
Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of non-violent protest was therefore, adopted as a tenet of American Civil Religion. Just as Americans built statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington to commemorate their principles of freedom and liberty, they constructed others of Mahatma Gandhi to remember his concept of change without violence. There are various statues of Gandhi located on college campuses, parks, and government buildings nationwide.
By John Budd, Trevor Moore, and Olivia Bryan
Special thanks to Dr. Terry Beitzel of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence, Art Pekun and the brilliant minds at JMU Innovation Services.
Chappell, Daivd L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 87-104.
Chicago Defender, June 10, 1945; Reprinted in Raghavan Iyer, ed., The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, 2005, 40-41.
Jackson, A.L. Chicago Defender, quoted in Chabot, Sean. Transnational Roots of the Civil Rights Movement: African American Explorations of the Gandhian Repertoire. (Online: Lexington Books, 2011), 48.
King Jr., Martin Luther. “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi”, Ebony, July 1952, 84-92.
King Jr., Martin Luther and Clayborn, Carson. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998).
Holmes, John Haynes, “Mahatma Gandhi: Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?” (April 10, 1921), Harvard Square Library, http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/mahatma-gandhi-who-is-the-greatest-man-in-the-world-today/