Martin Luther King Jr. with “The Gandhi Reader.”

Martin Luther King Jr. with “The Gandhi Reader.”

The Gandhi Reader: MLK’s literary inspiration

By Mike Selby

King was lucky.

In the spring of 1938, a young boy handed two books across a large desk to a librarian, along with his library card. This was the second part of a familiar rite of passage that played out in libraries all across the United States (and continues today). Many milestones in a young person’s life help initiate them into the adult world; none more important than a library card all one’s own. Besides ownership and thoughtful responsibility, the card allows children to make their own choices, explore the larger world around them, and — more often than not — help discover who they are inside.

Martin Luther King Jr. was only nine when he passed the books along with his card for checkout. This was at Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue Branch Library, and King was an absolute regular there. Not only did he live on the same street as the library, but his home was less than two blocks away. That the precocious nine-year-old interested in reading and big words lived so close to a library is almost too perfect. That the two books he sought to check out that day were both about Gandhi is astounding.

But there was a hiccup.

After looking at the books and the card, the librarian told King he was not allowed to check these books out. History doesn’t record either person’s reaction, but the librarian’s strong “no” may have been said with a wink. The Gandhi books were restricted to adult card holders only, but if he brought in his father’s library card, she would be happy to check out the books to him.

Annie L. McPheeters was the name of the woman willing to bend if not break the rules for her young patron, where she had been the branch’s director since 1936.

The above is an excerpt from my book Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South. While the work is about libraries set up during Freedom Summer, the ‘King was lucky’ example was to stress the fact that millions of African Americans did not share this reality. For them, public library service was nonexistent.

As is well known today, the adult Martin Luther King Jr. recounts his interest and excitement about Gandhi in his book Stride Towards Freedom and his Autobiography. A lecture in Philadelphia by Mordechai Johnson sparked King’s interest in Gandhi to the degree that he purchased half-a-dozen books on Gandhi as soon as the lecture ended.

Historian Taylor Branch doesn’t think much of this story, feeling that the King/Gandhi connection was simply window dressing for the Civil Rights Movement. This is an odd stance. Not only does this ignore the rich connections an earlier generation of African Americans made with Gandhi; it also ignores King’s conscious adoption of Gandhi’s nonviolence, and that he travelled to India to meet Gandhi’s family and followers.

Branch’s doubts stem from King never speaking about Gandhi personally (factually and demonstrably untrue) and that he never mentions the titles of the Gandhi books he bought.

While I disagree with his conclusion, I readily sympathize with the unknown book title frustration.

It was at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History where I found a somewhat obscure oral transcript of Annie McPheeters, who recounted her career at the segregated Auburn branch, as well as her life as Atlanta’s first African American librarian. While fascinating, I thought her story of King requesting Gandhi books too spurious — something she had misremembered after 60 years. Further research proved me wrong. A handful of unrelated sources clearly noted the segregated branch of the Auburn library holding adult education classes about Gandhi between 1931 and 1934, with the library acquiring the material used.

“At that time,” recalls McPheeters, “one of the outstanding discussion groups centered around Gandhi and his movement. And we had several programs directly connected with the Gandhi movement.” As for the young Martin Luther King Jr., she reported “that at a very early age he started — I don’t know how he got interested in Gandhi. He may have come with his father to one of those meetings that the adult education project had…but he started reading those books on the Gandhi movement. And he read everyone of those books that we had.”

The title of the books King borrowed are frustratingly lost to history. Library circulation records — if kept at all— are only used for statistics. The reality of the separate but equal segregated libraries all but ensured a lack of record keeping. The sponsors of the Gandhi program — American Library Association, The Association for Adult Education and The Carnegie Library of New York — also have no records of what books were used for their Gandhi programs.

But one can always guess. The Story of My Experiments with Truth; Satyagraha in South Africa; Mahatma Gandhi’s Ideas; and The Power of Nonviolence were all published between 1928 and 1934. Unfortunately (for me, fortunately for the world) 1,400 other books by or about Gandhi also appear in this time frame. Did King read about Gandhi trying to create a warless word; or how Gandhi himself could get lost in books; or even how one can write from a jail cell?

How great would it have been if he read Gandhi’s eerily prescient comment that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” Not only did he become this person, but nonviolence probably would have never spread outside of India without King.

Perhaps he was only reading these books for the pleasure of reading itself. Or to keep up with his older sister. Or to look for “big words” to use. Ultimately, knowing which books the young King checked out is not important. What is important is the legacy of both.

In my office is a large print of Moneta Sleett’s photo of the adult King in his office reading his copy of The Gandhi Reader. I find it the perfect image to dwell under. Not only is it a constant reminder of segregated libraries and human dignity, but also — in a single photo — reminds me of the fact that nonviolence is the most meaningful act in human history.

And that is anything but window dressing.