India’s political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led unprecedented non-violent movements to gain freedom for their people. But non-violence was not their only strategy and may not have been their most effective one. Both leaders were riding tides of political and social change that were already well underway in the early post-World War II period.
Some observers believe the civil disobedience strategy so effectively used by both leaders was shrewdly contrived to goad their opponents into violence and thereby force outside intervention. In any event that’s what happened, and it worked. There was also the thinly-disguised threat of "Deal peaceably with me, or deal with the mob." But there were other dynamics at work as well.
After World War II the British nation was prostrate, its economy bankrupt, its manufacturing base and infrastructure in shambles and food shortages were critical. Both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman advised we would aid in Britain’s recovery but would not contribute one penny to preserve the British Empire. Gandhi was aware of this and we can be sure it figured in his strategy. After the devastation, sacrifice and trauma of World War II he knew the British people had no stomach for another colonial war. Gandhi had only to wait for events to unfold for India’s independence and freedom to emerge.
In 1948, one year after Jackie Robinson broke professional baseball’s color line, President Harry Truman quietly and unobtrusively integrated the U.S. armed forces by presidential decree, almost without incident. This move signaled the beginning of the end of Jim Crow’s reign in America, preceding the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision by six years. The Court’s Desegregation Decision officially marked the culmination (or the beginning, depending on one’s perspective) of Black America’s long struggle for freedom and dignity. In all of world history no ethnic group has ever advanced so far in so short a time as have African Americans; from enslavement to the presidency of their country in slightly less than 150 years. Such progress is unprecedented in human history and could only happen in America.
After joining the U.S. Air Force in 1951, three years after the armed services were racially- integrated, I soon discovered that The South had no franchise on racial prejudice and discrimination. Men from other parts of the country gave lip service to racial equality, but frequently neither embraced nor practiced it. I also noticed that men from the South, black and white, seemed to get along better together and were often more comfortable in one another’s company than with men from other parts of the country. To a son of the Deep South, this was a revelation.
The events and details surrounding these two momentous, world-changing transitions might still be arguable, but in the final analysis the winds of change were already strongly blowing in the early post-war years. Colonialism’s and racial segregation’s times had simply come.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.