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Gandhi’s granddaughter invites Cranbrook librarian to South Africa conference

In the dark of night on June 7, 1883, Mohandas K. Gandhi was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg. In South Africa to work as a lawyer, his presence in the first-class carriage was objected to by a white passenger. Even though he had purchased a first-class ticket, Gandhi was ordered to move to third-class. Refusing, Gandhi was forcefully ejected, landing with is luggage onto a hard dirt road. He felt confused and afraid; ashamed and humiliated. Yet when he stood up, he was a changed man.
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Clockwise from top: Ela Gandhi; Mike Selby, Deputy Director of the Cranbrook Public Library; Selby’s book “Freedom Libraries.”

In the dark of night on June 7, 1883, Mohandas K. Gandhi was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg. In South Africa to work as a lawyer, his presence in the first-class carriage was objected to by a white passenger. Even though he had purchased a first-class ticket, Gandhi was ordered to move to third-class. Refusing, Gandhi was forcefully ejected, landing with is luggage onto a hard dirt road. He felt confused and afraid; ashamed and humiliated. Yet when he stood up, he was a changed man.

Gandhi fell with a ticket no one would honour; he rose as someone no one could ignore. From this moment on he would fight oppression, class and racial hatred; not for himself, but for all people everywhere. Nonviolent protest came to life here, and Gandhi spent the next 20 years in South Africa perfecting it before returning to India. He wasn’t so much thrown from the train as he was launched.

To help commemorate this world-changing event, the inaugural Gandhi-Mandela-King Conference will take place in Pietermaritzburg from June 6-9, 2023. This conference is the result of international collaboration that includes the Humanities Institute (UKZN), the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Foundation, the College of Humanities at UNISA, the Gandhi Development Trust in Durban, the Gandhi King Institute in Hyderabad, India, the Gandhi Memorial Foundation in Chicago, the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, SA, and the World House Global Network at the Martin Luther King Institute at Stanford University.

With its international collaborative nature, the conference will see 300+ delegates from around the globe converge in Pietermaritzburg, including senior officials from India and South Africa, as well as eminent scholars from the USA, India, and other parts of the world.

Cranbrook’s Mike Selby is one of those delegates, invited by Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela.

“It’s humbling and an incredible honour,” Selby said. “My book ‘Freedom Libraries’ has just been released in paperback, so the timing couldn’t be better. I met Ela—Dr. Gandhi—through my work at Stanford University (Selby was contracted to update the bibliography of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers last year.) Ela turned out to be a big fan of my book.”

The Mahatma’s granddaughter wrote to Selby, stating “Your stories resonate so much with ours in South Africa. My father protested against segregated libraries as part of the defiance campaign in 1952 by forcibly entering the whites only library. We were not allowed to enter the whites only campus of the University and we were not able to access books from the main library.”

She asked Selby to come and speak about the research which went into his book at the upcoming conference, feeling it would be a perfect fit under the towering legacies of Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

“The Western construct of “race” was used to impede, infect, and ultimately stain the provision of public library service in both the United States and South Africa during the 20th century,” Selby stated. “As abhorrent as the current wave of book banning is, there was a time when people banning existed. I will review the steps each country took to uphold the fundamental human right to information.”

“And—of course—meeting Ela in person will be thrilling as well.”

Mike Selby is the Deputy Director of the Cranbrook Public Library. His book ‘Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South’ won the Outstanding Academic Title of the Year Award by the Association of College and Research Libraries in 2020. A new paperback edition is now available.