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I HAVE BEEN working on a book Making a Difference, the profits from which will go to the Hope Foundation, the Irish charity that works with street children in Kolkata in India (see here: Making a Difference).

The book will contain a series of contributions that address the question once famously posed by Gandhi, “How can I be the change that will make a difference in the world?”

My role is to conduct interviews with contributors, write up the results (except, of course, in the case of those who are perfectly capable of writing up their own contributions), along with other general editorial duties — creating a web-presence for the project, copy-editing incoming, securing and shaping further contributions, etc.

GandhiThe following is an off-cut from this work.

There is no documentary evidence that Gandhi actually said “How can I be the change that will make a difference in the world?” (Or penned it.) The expression is believed to be a paraphrase of what he said when he said:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so the attitude of the world changes towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.”

In its full context Gandhi is saying that personal and social transformation go hand in hand; in the actual (verified) Gandhi statement there is much less of the suggestion that personal transformation is all we need concern ourselves with, which of course is (arguably) the primary import of the paraphrased version.

And, indeed, if we look at Gandhi’s work, we see clearly that for him worthwhile change is brought about by way of (on one hand) stringent self-denial and self-sacrifice in conjunction with (on the other hand) a steadfast awareness that one person, alone, cannot change anything very much — great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence is what is required for significant and lasting change.

Gandhi’s famous Salt March of 1930 is the paradigm — the Salt Satyagraha — a direct action campaign of non-compliance, a nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India. It began with the Dandi March on 12 March 1930, and came to be an important episode in the story of Indian independence; thereafter, becoming the paradigm action for civil disobedience movements all across the globe.

1930-march-all_BGMohandas Karamchand Gandhi led the Dandi march from his Sabarmati Ashram base near Ahmedabad, to the coastal village of Dandi, in the state of Gujarat. On this 24-day, 240-mile (390 km) march to produce salt (without, as the law required, seeking licence and paying tax to the colonial authorities for so doing), thousands of Indians joined him along the way.

When Gandhi broke the salt laws on the morning of 5 April 1930, it sparked widespread acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws, millions of Indians across millions of square miles of colonial territory nonviolently disobeying what was seen as unjust legislation and administration. The campaign had a significant effect on attitudes towards the Indian independence movement (and, critically, towards British authority in India) and caused large numbers of Indians to become involved in the independence movement for the first time.

Altogether, over 80,000 Indians were jailed as a result of Salt Satyagraha — Gandhi’s “satyagraha” (the term is his invention) loosely translates as “truth-force”: it is formed from the Sanskrit words satya, “truth”, and agraha, “force” — the campaign against the salt tax continued for over a year.

After making salt at Dandi, Gandhi continued southward along the coast, producing salt and addressing meetings. His party planned to stage a satyagraha at the Dharasana Salt Works, 25 miles south of Dandi. However, Gandhi was arrested on the midnight of 4 May 1930, just before the planned action at Dharasana. Because of extensive newspaper and newsreel coverage, the Dandi March and the ensuing Dharasana Satyagraha (especially the violent actions of the police in the effort to prevent the satyagraha from taking place) drew worldwide attention to the cause of Indian independence. Salt Satyagrahas continued for almost a year, ending with Gandhi’s release from jail and negotiations with the British Viceroy Lord Irwin at the Second Round Table Conference (these talks would also prove fruitless, however they were a critical step along the way — ever afterwards the British were fighting rearguard actions and, with ever decreasing success, justifying their presence in India).

The Salt March to Dandi, and the beating by British police of hundreds of nonviolent protesters in Dharasana, demonstrated the effective use of civil disobedience as a technique for fighting social and political injustice (in effect, demonstrating how weakness could be used as a strength). The satyagraha teachings of Gandhi and the March to Dandi had a significant influence on Martin Luther King and James Bevel and others a generation later campaigning for civil rights for blacks and other minority groups in the United States in the 1950s and 60s.

Civil Rights campaigners walking from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) in March 1965 — the first attempt

Civil Rights campaigners walking from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) in March 1965 — the first attempt

On March 1965, 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80, headed for Montgomery the state capitol of Alabama. Organised by the Selma Voting Rights Movement, the protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they found a thick wall of ginned-up state troopers waiting for them on the other side.

That morning Sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all white males in Dallas County over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse to be deputized. At the bridge commanding officer John Cloud told the civil rights demonstrators to disband at once and go home. The civil rights leaders tried to reason with the officer, but Cloud curtly informed them there was nothing to discuss. At that the state troopers began shoving and provoking the demonstrators, many of whom were knocked to the ground and beaten with nightsticks. Tear gas and vicious dogs and horse-mounted troopers were also used to disperse the protesters.

Televised images of the brutal response to people attempting to lawfully protest (who, after all, were were merely asking for equal treatment under the law, which they had every constitutional right to do) presented the world with horrifying images of civil rights campaigners left bloodied and abused and severely injured. The events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day roused widespread support for the Selma Voting Rights campaign and brought the issue front and centre in American public life. The day became famous as “Bloody Sunday”.

On Sunday, March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel in Selma to commence the trek to Montgomery again. Most of the participants were black, but there were some were whites there too and some Asians and Latinos. Spiritual leaders of multiple races, religions, and creeds marched abreast with Dr King, including Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Davis, and at least one Roman Catholic nun, all of whom were captured in a famous photograph (note the garlands — a deliberate signifier of the Asiatic inspiration of their campaign tactics — and also clock the fact that these Selma-to-Montgomery marches were staged in the month of March, just as Gandhi had set out on his salt march in month of March a generation before — the trek from Selma to Montgomery was a 5-day, 54-mile journey; a trek designed, of course, to allow the thing to gather momentum as day built upon day).

3rd Selma to MontgomeryCamping in muddy fields by night, protesters made their way in dismal rain through the bleak political landscape of Lowndes County. The population of Lowndes was 81% black and 19% white, but not a single black person was registered to vote there. At the same time there were 2,240 whites registered to vote, which represented 118% of the adult white population (in them Jim Crow days it was commonplace to preserve whites voters on the electoral rolls long after they had died or had moved on elsewhere).

On the morning of the 24th, the marchers finally crossed into Montgomery County. All day as the march approached the city, additional supporters came to join up. By evening, tens of thousands had gathered at the final campsite at the City of St Jude, a complex on the outskirts of Montgomery.

That final night on a makeshift stage, an impromptu “Stars for Freedom” event was held, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Baez and Nina Simone all performing.

And then on Thursday, 25 March, 25,000 people marched from St Jude to the steps of the State Capitol Building where King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

“The end we seek,” King told the crowd, “is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience…. I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” After delivering the speech, King and the marchers approached the entrance to the capitol with a petition for Governor Wallace. A line of state troopers blocked the their way to the entrance. The protesters were told that the governor wasn’t in the building. Undeterred, the marchers resolved to remain until, finally, one of Wallace’s secretaries appeared and took receipt of the petition.

The marches (and the whole campaign) had a powerful effect in Washington, D.C. After seeing the TV coverage of the events of “Bloody Sunday”, President Johnson (Lyndon Baines Johnson) met with Governor [George] Wallace to discuss the situation with him. The president tried to persuade Wallace to put a stop to the blatant state-harassment of lawful protesters. The president was not successful in these efforts. As a consequence not long afterwards, Johnson presented a bill to a joint session of the United States’ congress which would, after a little Johnsonian arm-twisting, become the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a passage that might have been Dr King himself speaking, in his congressional speech President Johnson said:

Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Many in the Civil Rights movement cheered the speech and were emotionally moved that, after so long, and so hard a struggle, a United States president — and a southerner at that — was finally willing to throw his weight behind the campaign for equality for all. According to C.T. Vivian, who was with King when the speech was broadcast,

. . . I looked over. . . Martin was very quietly sitting in the chair, and a tear ran down his cheek. It was a victory like none other.

Attended by the leading civil rights campaigners, the bill became law at a ceremony in Washington in August 1965. The act prohibited most of the unfair practices used to prevent blacks from registering to vote, and provided for federal registrars to go to Alabama and other states with a history of voting-related discrimination to ensure that the laws were adhered to.

In Selma, where more than 7,000 blacks were added to the voting rolls after passage of the Act, Sheriff Jim Clark (a member of the Ku Klux Klan) was voted out of office in 1966. (By the by, afterwards, in 1970s, Clark would serve a prison sentence for smuggling drugs into the country — dope which had come from Colombia).

In 2008, Barack Obama (who was about 4 years old at the time of the Selma-Montgomery marches) was elected as the 44th President of the United States of America (pictured here with his wife Michelle at the inauguration ceremony in January 2009)

In 2008, Barack Obama (who was about 4 years old at the time of the Selma-Montgomery marches) was elected as the 44th President of the United States of America (pictured here with his wife Michelle at the inauguration ceremony in January 2009)