The Harlem Ashram 1940-1947: Gandhian Satyagraha in the United States; Paul R. Dekar

Gandhi made satyagraha, truth-force, a word he coined to describe direct, active, nonviolent resistance to oppression work effectively as both a spirituality for living and a strategy for overcoming evil. How did an approach developed in South Africa and India come to the United States? As a case study in the diffusion of Gandhian satyagraha, the Harlem Ashram existed only briefly, but its impact was great, notably in shaping the direction the civil rights movement took. (i)

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     Active nonviolence has a long history in the United States. One discerns the impact of Gandhi, specifically, as early as April 1, 1915. On that date, John Haynes Holmes, pastor of Community Church in New York City mounted his pulpit, announced he was a pacifist prepared to resist U. S. involvement in World War I, and submitted his resignation, an offer his congregation declined. Holmes explained that Gandhi had addressed three needs of his life: for a spirituality of pacifism; for insight into the wounds inflicted by western imperialism not simply on India, but on the west itself; and for a method to save the world from self-destruction. In a later sermon, Holmes declared, “When I think of Gandhi, I think of Jesus. He lives his life; he speaks his word; he suffers, strives, and will some day nobly die, for his kingdom upon earth.” (ii)
Another activist influenced by Gandhian satyagraha, Richard Bartlett Gregg, onetime corporate lawyer in Boston, lived four years in Gandhi’s ashram and distilled what he learned about building “a new and better world” in The Power of Nonviolence, first published in 1934. The book went through several editions. In a foreword to the 1959 paperback edition, Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on his own journey to India, Gandhi’s relevance in the south, and the importance of struggling to achieve social, personal, and political freedom in a manner consistent with human dignity.

     King was not the first African American to recognize the potential of Gandhian satyagraha in the struggle for racial justice. Earlier, several of King’s mentors–notably Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays, Bayard Rustin, and Mordecai W. Johnson--met Gandhi in India and returned to the U. S. to disseminate their understandings of Gandhian practice.
These activists wrestled with this question: was it feasible to launch Gandhian mass action in the U. S. to challenge racism? Some thought so. Others did not. To frame the debate, I highlight the thought of two African Americans. In 1941 James Farmer graduated from Howard University’s School of Religion. Farmer opposed war in general and objected specifically to serving in the segregated armed forces. When the U.S. entered World War II, he applied for conscientious objector status but was granted a draft deferment because of his divinity degree. Farmer began work as race relations secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Founded in this country in 1915, FOR members have consistently supported nonviolent alternatives to war and violence. (iii)  In a crucial memo to the National Council, Farmer proposed a “mobilization plan.” He argued that the “Blessed Community and the Family of Christ are rent asunder by the evil practice of apartheid in America, which will not end until the decent and religious people of the land will it so.” He urged FOR to organize a nonviolent movement of noncooperation to restrictive covenants, residential segregation, and other forms of racism.iv This led to creation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

     In a 1943 article published in the New York Amsterdam News, W. E. B. Du Bois stressed the limits of adapting Gandhi’s practices in the U. S. An architect of the civil rights movement in the U. S., Du Bois believed that the spiritual aspects of Gandhi’s movement had been bred into the very bones of Indians for more than three thousand years. He doubted that large enough numbers of European Americans could accept the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and self-sacrifice in order to generate a mass movement. Nor did he believe African Americans could copy Gandhian methods without thought and consideration. Du Bois contended that cultural patterns in the east and the west differ so vastly that what makes sense in one world may be nonsense in another. (v)  Responding to Du Bois’ article, Ralph T. Templin agreed that an oppressed population was not willing to submit indefinitely to powers and principalities of domination. (vi)  A former Methodist missionary to India, Templin disagreed that Gandhi’s ideas were alien to U. S. soil. He observed that Gandhi borrowed ideas from the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Henry David Thoreau.

     With this background, we turn now to the Harlem of the early 1940s. Harlem pulsed with ferment, from Father Divine’s Peace Movement to fakirs and charlatans (as journalist Roy Ottley called them): High John the Conqueror, purveyor of love potions; Rajah Rabo, author of dream-books; and a seer named Madame Fu Futtam. Harlem had a dubious reputation. James H. Robinson, African American pastor of the Church of the Master, characterized Harlem as a place “of poverty, filth, disease . . . [and] seething crowds of Negroes living on the lowest possible level of life.” However, he explained, there was another side to Harlem, that of eminent churches and cultural achievements, notably the Harlem Renaissance. People could be mobilized to use “the little power and wealth at their disposal plus the enormous resources of their spiritual capacity to create for themselves an important, a weighty and an enduring position within the framework of democracy.” (vii)  The Harlem Ashram fell into this world. Along with Ralph Templin, a key figure was Jay Holmes Smith, like Templin a former Methodist missionary in India, where they had taken great interest in the nationalist movement. The British government had asked them to stop their pro-Gandhi work. Arguing they had been in India long enough to consider it impossible to be pro-government, they did not. Rather, they called for the government to change its policies. In response, Britain expelled Smith and Templin. Once they were back in the U. S., they first organized a nonviolent direct action committee that helped hosiery workers in Reading, Pennsylvania press for change. Then in 1940, they helped organize the Harlem Ashram.

     Templin, Smith, and other founding members were European Americans. They explained,

  • We regard the problem of racial justice as America’s No. 1 problem in reconciliation, and most of our work concerns the Negro-white aspect of this problem.
  • Living here makes it easy for us to contact Negro leaders.
  • Harlem is the opinion-making center of Negro America, the Negro capital of the nation.
  • Living here helps us who are white to get something of the “feel” of being a Negro in America. (viii)

     To study the application of Gandhi’s way of life to the U. S., especially in the arena of race, Harlem Ashram members organized a Non-violence Direct Action Committee. Three African Americans joined, along with a Hindu from India, Krishnalal Jethalal Shridharani. A veteran of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March and of his university Gujarat Vidyapith, Shridharani spent over a decade in the U. S. as a student and interpreter of Gandhi. His Columbia University thesis “War without Violence. The Sociology of Gandhi’s Satyagraha” (1939) offered a critique of traditional Christian pacifism, marked more by a philosophy of non-resistance than of non-cooperation. His books, including My India, My America (1941), an account of his time in the U. S., and The Mahatma and His World (1946), gained a wide readership. According to Shridharani, too many pacifists in the U. S. revered a Christ-like Gandhi rather than a leader of a mass movement of social change.

     The pacifists fail, because they regard peace as an end in itself. As a result, they minimize the significance of other human values, though they may be subjective, such as freedom and justice, which roil people’s blood and cause great social and political upheavals. The pacifists’ dream is just a pious wish with underpinnings of mere “good will.” Naive in their conception of human nature, they refuse to take into consideration the pluralistic genius of the human psyche…. When their hope of peace is frustrated in the process of social change, as often happens, they are in a dilemma. The demand for social change offers them but one alternative, viz., that of upholding the violent method or of maintaining the status quo…. There is no other choice left them, for the pacifists fail to realize that something more than good will is required to grease the wheels of a changing order. (ix)

     The number of African American residents of the Harlem Ashram grew: Farmer, jurist Pauli Murray, and educator Wilson Head. The community included both single men and women, and families. Located at 2013 Fifth Avenue, near 125th Street, the group adopted a primitive form of Christian communalism, voluntary poverty. In prayer each submitted to group discipline in money matters. Each gave to the common purse that part of his or her income they were led to give and withdrew only what was needed. Living in solidarity with the Harlem community, members initially served by

• helping African Americans migrating from the south to find housing;

• investigating the use of violence by the police in strikes;

• creating a credit union run by and for African Americans, Puerto Ricans, or other minorities as well as a cooperative buying club; and, finally,

• conducting street plays for African American and Puerto Rican children.

     Muriel Lester, British-born international secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation who had lived in Gandhi’s ashram in India, became an advisor to Harlem Ashram members. She helped the community develop a training course in “total pacifism.” She encouraged members to “out-train the totalitarians, out-match their ‘intrepidity, contempt for comfort, surrender of private interest, obedience to command’ with a superior courage, frugality, loyalty and selflessness.”
As well as advisors such as Muriel Lester, several books provided members help in bridging the Indian and North American contexts: Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence, Shridharani’s War without Violence, and A. J. Muste’s Nonviolence in an Aggressive World (1940). Jay Holmes Smith explained, “If we are not to go off ‘half-cocked’ in our nonviolent direct action campaigns, we must get the benefit of study of the history of such action and the best thought of pacifist sages, past and present.” (x)

     Members began to carry out satyagraha campaigns. The first successful effort entailed desegregating New York City’s YMCAs. Then in 1942, they undertook a two-week interracial pilgrimage. Fourteen persons walked two hundred and forty miles from New York to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D. C. to support anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills then before Congress. Members worked on campaigns such as the March on Washington movement led by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. While that effort was postponed because of the war, members continued to target systemic racism. A broadsheet for an anti-poll tax rally held April 24, 1944 advised, Here’s our plan. Will you cooperate? We will throw a picket line around the Capitol area when the filibuster starts and we will walk as long as the senators talk. We’re asking as many men and women of all races and creeds as can to make a continuous, disciplined and peaceful demonstration for the duration of the filibuster . . . Are there 200 people to defend democracy at home and keep faith with the millions of men fighting fascism abroad?

     Harlem Ashram members also formed a Free India Committee. Members often participated in demonstrations at the British Consulate in New York City, or in front of British agencies. Members promoted Puerto Rican independence.

     Perhaps the most challenging project was the establishment of a Play Co-Op on thirteenth Street. Deemed a cell of “The New World Movement,” the Harlem Ashram used a vacant lot in a poor residential area teeming with New York City’s Puerto Rican and African American populations. The project began with week-end work camps with spiritual activities such as inter-racial worship, study, and dialogue about alternatives to war. Participants cleaned up trash-filled neighborhoods, sang, sewed, or did other crafts.

     Like many communities, the Harlem Ashram was short lived. Members moved on: Templin to an academic career; Smith to India after the country gained independence; Ruth Reynolds to Puerto Rico to support the nationalist cause led by Pedro Albizu Campos. On November 2, 1950 she was arrested, charged under a repressive gag law, and found guilty of sedition. In 1954 she won her case on appeal. James Farmer established his residence in Chicago when he helped organize CORE, and therefore lived only for a while at the Harlem Ashram. Drawn by the courage of the members and by the economic benefit of reasonable housing, Farmer did not accept the idea of voluntary poverty. His poverty was wholly involuntary, an unfortunate reality for many African Americans.

     The enduring significance of the Harlem Ashram was that it created a bridge by which nonviolent direct action techniques crossed from India to North America. Rooming together at the Harlem Ashram, John Swomley and James Farmer discussed the potential for transforming satyagraha into a tool in the struggle against racism. When Farmer moved on to Chicago, he and another CORE worker, George Houser, formed race relations cells or Fellowship Houses modeled on the Harlem Ashram.

     A parallel “experiment in truth,” was Ahimsa Farm, located in Aurora, Ohio near Cleveland. From May 1940 Brownson Clark, Bill Hefner, Bob Luitweiler, Paul Smith, and Paul Minor met for study, discussion, advocacy, simplification of life, and nonviolent direct action. When the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940 became law, the young men asked James Farmer to train them in techniques that became common during the civil rights movement. One example was role-playing sessions. Men rehearsed their claim to conscientious objector status in advance of appearing before draft boards. In advance of trying to desegregate public facilities, participants simulated arrest.

     Ahimsa Farm’s first action was a “Food March to the Sea.” The seeds from which the initiative sprouted were Gandhi’s Salt March to the Sea and Muriel Lester’s reports from Europe of starvation and disease because of an Allied food blockade. Lester called to “speed the food ships.” Joined by the Harlem Ashram, Ahimsa Farm members walked from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to New York City, a distance of about a hundred and seventy miles. The pilgrimage took place from December 21-25, 1940. Pilgrims pulled handcarts with humanitarian aid for starving Europeans. Along the route, they met occasional hostility as well as support. The following Easter, pilgrims undertook a second trek along a route from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington D. C. Believing that racism had no place in a just social order, Ahimsa Farm also took up the race challenge.

     When the Cleveland group of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appealed for help in breaking down segregation at the Garfield Park swimming pool Ahimsa Farm members followed steps that became commonplace in the Civil Rights era.  They studied the facts, developed an action plan, and prepared to act.

     Planning entailed two basic concerns. One was to make sure that justice was done, that is, to make certain that the pool was integrated. The second was to accomplish this first goal by nonviolence. The possibility of violence was worrisome. Elsewhere, undertakings that had been arguably equally provocative had sparked race riots.

     On a hot summer day, an interracial group of four African American boys and twelve European American boys bought tickets. This posed no difficulty as there was officially no discrimination in the matter of admission. When they entered the pool area, they met antagonism. One person shouted, “Christ! Niggers! What’ll they let in here next?” Another person called out, “They won’t stay in here long.”

     Ignoring the catcalls, the youth plunged into the water and swam for about ten minutes. The hostility intensified. European Americans were calling “Niggers! Everybody out!” Soon the activists were the only people still in the water. The group decided to go to the changing room, but they were surrounded by an angry crowd of about four hundred who had formed around the edges of the pool. As Lee Stern recalled, the situation was “terribly tense.” A man blocked his path. Stern extended an arm to shake the man’s hand and said, “My name is Lee Stern. I come from around here. These people are my friends, and we have no intention of doing any harm. But we feel all people are human, all people have feelings, and that all people have a right to be using this pool.”
This response of sympathy and courtesy disarmed Stern’s opponent. Probably without intending to do so, he shook hands with Stern and walked away. The nonviolent behavior of the activists threw the crowd off balance. They left after the time they had planned.

     Some activists believed the initiative raised the consciousness of pool employees and European American swimmers. However, the African American youth were dissatisfied with the results. They felt that they had not really accomplished anything on their own, nor had discrimination ended. Long discussions followed during which a second attempt to integrate the pool was planned. According to this new action strategy, before the African Americans went into the pool, at least twenty sympathetic European Americans were already mingling with other white swimmers. Thus, when the African Americans came to swim, they were acting on their own. They were supported by allies, the group who ignored the attempt to keep the African Americans out. Farmer reacted, “That’s exactly the type . . . of model which I think we need to follow.” (xi)

     Three summers passed before interracial teams again attempted such experiments with truth force. In 1944, an additional dimension was the inclusion of females. Again the interracial teams experienced hostility. Organizers had already taken the precaution to meet with officials and the police. Threats dissipated. Over time, the interracial teams overcame opposition to the integration of Garfield Park pool and other public facilities.

     Other initiatives included tackling race prejudice in employment and housing, de- segregation in prisons and of the military. Race Relations Institutes were held in several northern cities including Indianapolis, Dayton, Denver, Boulder, and Cleveland.

     Characteristically, an institute began on Friday night. James Farmer, John Swomley, or another theologian would deal with the fact of human unity, while a scientist would demonstrate such unity in the fact that descendants of both Europe and Africa had similar blood types. They emphasized this point because there were objections during World War II to the use of blood drawn from African-Americans for white casualties. Saturday activities generally involved integrating establishments such as a restaurant, theater or bowling alley.

     As a concrete example, Farmer and Swomley went to Detroit in June 1943 after a race riot to investigate whether FOR could make a contribution. On another occasion Bayard Rustin went to Boulder where Marjie Carpenter was a student. The campus chapter of FOR organized a sit-in in the off-campus drugstore-sandwich shop. The demonstration led to making services available to everyone, African Americans included.

     Immediately after World War II these initiatives led to the first inter-state journeys of reconciliation, protests of school quotas before local boards of education, and other efforts to achieve desegregation. In these ways, the Harlem Ashram proved the seed of King’s emerging vision of the Beloved Community. Nurtured in Gandhian satyagraha at the Harlem Ashram, African Americans, Japanese Americans, Hispanics, and European Americans fed Gandhi’s ideas to the civil rights movement. As participants have recalled these events, one senses the excitement they experienced by virtue of being present to the creation of a new and better world. (xii)

i  This paper draws from interviews of former Harlem Ashram members; autobiographies of participants, including James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart. An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (New York, 1985); Wilson Head, A Life on the Edge: Experiences in “Black and White” in North America : Memoirs of Wilson Head (Toronto: Dr. Wilson Head Institute, 1995); Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York, 1987); John M. Swomley, Confronting Systems of Violence. Memoirs of a Peace Activist (Nyack, 1998); Swarthmore College Peace Collection files; and secondary literature including Daniel Levine, Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement (New Brunswick, 2000); August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE. A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968 (New York, 1973); David Scott Cooney, “A Consistent Witness of Conscience. Methodist Nonviolent Activists, 1940-1970,” Ph.D. dissertation, Iliff School of Theology and The University of Denver (2000).  Back
ii  John Haynes Holmes, My Gandhi (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953), p. 31.  Back
iii  “The Fellowship of Reconciliation envisions a world of justice, peace, and freedom. It is a revolutionary vision of a beloved community where differences are respected, conflicts addressed nonviolently, oppressive structures dismantled, and where people live in harmony with the earth, nurtured by diverse spiritual traditions that foster compassion, solidarity, and reconciliation.” http://www.forusa.org. For a history, see Paul R. Dekar, Creating the Beloved Community. Journeying with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (Telford: Cascadia and Scottdale: Herald, 2005).  Back
iv  Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart pp 85ff, 102, 355-60. Peter Mayer, ed., The Pacifist Conscience (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967), pp. 363-70.  Back
v  Richard G. Fox cites W. E. B. Du Bois, “Passage from India,” Between Resistance and Revolution. Cultural Politics and Social Protest, ed. Richard G. Fox and Orin Starn (New Brunswick, 1997); S. Chabot, “Submerged Diffusion and the African American Adoption of the Gandhian Repertoire,” Passages 3 (April 2001): 32-56; John Vijay Prashad, “The Influence of Gandhi on the American Nonviolence Movement,” http://www.littleindia.com/*.htmBack
vi  Fox cites Templin’s “Letter to the Editor,” New York Amsterdam News May 29, 1943. Back

vii  James H. Robinson, “This, Too, Is Harlem,” Fellowship 8 (March 1942): 39-40; John Clarke, ed., Harlem, U.S.A. (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1964); Holmes Smith, “Our New York Ashram,” Fellowship 7 (January 1941): 1; Cooney thesis, passim; John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds. The Afro-Americans: Selected Documents (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972); interviews and correspondence with John and Marjie Swomley and George and Jean Houser.  Back
viii  September 9, 1942 brochure, Harlem Ashram papers, SCPC Collected Documents Group.  Back
ix  War without Violence. The Sociology of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and CO., 1939), pp. 270-1. 10  Back
x  J. Holmes Smith, “Nonviolent Direct Action,” Fellowship 7 (December 1941): 207.   Back

xi  Andrew Lightman, “A Pilgrimage of Nonviolence” (honors paper, Department of History, Bowdoin College, 1985), pp. 34-40; Bayard Rustin, Interracial Primer (New York: FOR, 1943); George M. Houser, Erasing the Color Line (New York: Fellowship Publications, 1945).  Back
xii  Letters from Marjie Swomley, June 8, 2004; George M. Houser, October 18, 2004. Back

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