This fall there are events around the world to mark the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. For those of us in the United States, Gandhi’s birthday is also an opportunity to reflect on how lessons from Gandhi’s organizing in South Africa and in India were integral to the US civil rights movement. That the greatest American movement of the last century was stimulated, in part, by international and interreligious exchanges affirms how democratic histories are always transnational and affirms the transnational history of the American religious left.

Beginning in the 1920s, black newspapers took special interest in Gandhi, and fostered debates about his tactics and whether nonviolence could stem racial terror in the United States. Gandhi’s blending of religious and political ideals caught the attention of black Christian intellectuals. In 1936, Howard Thurman, Sue Bailey Thurman, and Benjamin Mays traveled to India and met with Mohandas Gandhi. Sue Bailey Thurman was a YWCA leader and committed internationalist; Howard Thurman and Mays were Baptist ministers and then professors at Howard University’s School of Religion. Howard Thurman was a great twentieth-century theologian and social critic. Benjamin Mays is perhaps best known as president of Morehouse College. All three later became important mentors to Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Thurmans, Mays, and other black Christian intellectuals and activists embraced American democratic ideals and Christian egalitarian visions, even as they recognized that neither American politics nor American churches put them into practice. They looked in other countries and in other religions for political and moral sources to strengthen American and Christian expressions of freedom and justice. The Indian independence movement became a paradigm for an anticolonial freedom struggle that drew deeply from religious and moral resources, and a model for the kind of freedom movement they hoped to foster in the United States.

Lately, there has been important reevaluation of Gandhi’s work, prompted by questions like: Why did Gandhi exclude black South Africans from his movement there? Could Gandhi reconcile his service in the Boer War with his later anti-imperialism? Why did Gandhi oppose untouchability, but not caste? These questions suggest that Gandhi’s program was not as nonviolent as he insisted it was.

In 1936, the Thurmans and Benjamin Mays asked these exact questions to Gandhi himself. The Thurmans and Mays were well read on Indian politics, Indian religions, and the history of Gandhi’s organizing, in India as well as in South Africa. They were well-prepared to ask difficult questions. For five months in 1935-1936, the Thurmans traveled the length and breadth of what is now Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where they met with activists and intellectuals, and throughout lectured on American politics, history, and religion. Near the end of the trip, they met Gandhi. The Thurmans asked the Mahatma about noncooperation and how to train people in nonviolence. When Benjamin Mays traveled to India later in 1936, he also met with Gandhi and asked him to elucidate moral sources of nonviolence, which included Hinduism, Jainism, as well as close readings of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi himself, Mays discovered, was influenced by ethical streams from across the globe.

As they sought wisdom from Gandhi, black Americans also criticized aspects of his program. Howard Thurman noticed that Gandhi did not collaborate with black South Africans, when, earlier in his career, Gandhi led protests against excessive taxation and free movement between South African states. Mays probed why Gandhi worked to end untouchability, but not caste, what Mays felt was an exploitative system that ensnared millions in poverty. The Thurmans and Mays brought these criticisms to Gandhi directly.

Mays and the Thurmans returned home and lectured widely about Indian politics and Indian religions in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They predicted that black American Christians could develop strategies inspired by the Indian independence movement, but only after they understood how Indian moral sources worked in the Indian context.

For instance, in the wake of his initial visit to India, Mays wrote a series of articles for the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a regional paper with a wide readership, about his meetings with Gandhi and with Jawaharlal Nehru, and about the Indian independence movement. Mays’s columns are models of interreligious engagement and offer astute democratic theory. He described the history and diversity of Indian anticolonialism and underscored the vast differences between the US and Indian contexts. Mays wanted American readers to know about Gandhi and his activism, and described Gandhi’s program in fine religious detail, for example, explaining how Gandhi’s use of ahimsa, the Sanskrit term for noninjury, emerged more from Jainism than from Hinduism.

In the early twenty-first century, we may not be surprised that Mays urged that Americans take Gandhi seriously. But the care and specificity with which Mays wrote about the religious context of Gandhi’s activism is uncommon. Mays, both an ordained Baptist minister and a religious studies scholar, described Gandhi’s work on its own terms and in its own context, and then made the case for how Americans, particularly American Christians, could apply these lessons.

Despite particular and deep criticisms of Gandhi’s program, the Thurmans and Mays were able to learn from a person whose moral vision was limited. This is a crucial skill as we look for moral and intellectual resources to address contemporary crises.

Mays and the Thurmans mentored many, including James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and Pauli Murray, who, as early as the 1940s, innovated noncooperation in the United States by integrating buses, organizing sit-ins, and staging multicity marches, sparked by Indian precedents, yet arising from a specifically black, Christian nonviolence. Mainstays of what Rustin later called the “classical” phase of the civil rights movement, their efforts laid the groundwork for the Rev. Dr. King’s leadership of a mass movement for racial justice in America.

After independence, India continued to be a beacon for black Americans. In 1953, Benjamin Mays returned to India, as a guest of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and leader of the world’s largest democracy. Mays marveled at how India’s new constitution enumerated rights for everyone in the multireligious and multiethnic state, including freedom of speech and assembly, equality in employment, and equal access to shops and accommodations, and underscored that women and children have rights. These protections, Mays noted, were not then available to black Americans.

Mays praised Nehru’s leadership, and he was, without seemingly knowing it, also commending B. R. Ambedkar, Dalit activist and primary drafter of the Indian Constitution, and one of the great democratic thinkers of the last century. (Mays would have appreciated talks with Ambedkar, who pilloried Gandhi’s and other progressive Hindus’ defense of the caste system as abetting inequality and violence.)

In midcentury, Benjamin Mays wrote there were “many wrongs” still to be corrected in India, referring to persistent caste divisions, yet Mays believed that “the moral leadership of the nations may come from the East” and not “from the so-called great powers.” The United States should not claim to be the defender of democracy around the world, Mays insisted, because America fails to provide democratic protections for its own citizens. Indian independence gave Mays hope, however, that the United States could become more democratic.

Recovering Howard Thurman’s, Sue Bailey Thurman’s, and Benjamin Mays’s early work reminds us of their remarkable international travel, their interreligious engagement, and their keen analysis of how lessons from one social movement could be used in an American campaign that would become the greatest American social movement of the twentieth century.

The great work of Mays and the Thurmans reminds us that American Christianity and American democracy are strengthened by engaging with liberatory political and religious movements around the world. Their writing and practice show us the great value of transnational and interreligious encounters. Their work affirms how our moral and democratic visions can be challenged and sharpened by people from other parts of the world and from religious traditions other than our own. It testifies to the importance of disputation and disagreement for learning to see ourselves in a new way, and that this is crucial for thinking and acting ethically. As Americans debate the role of religious progressivism today, we do well to heed the wisdom and lessons from this earlier generation of activists and intellectuals.