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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
US civil rights 'made in India'
BBC South Asia correspondent Nick Bryant will shortly take up a new posting after nearly three years in the region. Prior to that he was a BBC correspondent in Washington.

Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi's principles of non-violence inspired people in the US
Completing a book in South Asia has been anything but dull.

Much of the conclusion was written in a maharajah's palace; the final typos were corrected in a military encampment high in the quake-affected mountains of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

The first academic reviews came through at an internet cafe in rebel-controlled territory in northern Sri Lanka, with a stern portrait of the Tamil Tiger leader Vilupillai Prabhakaran frowning down on me; and the finished manuscript went to print just as Nepal's 'Ringroad Revolution' was reaching its climax.

Take the morning of Saturday, 8 October 2005. With the final deadline less than 48 hours away, I had awoken uncharacteristically early so that I could be seated at my desk before dawn.

Three hours later, when my laptop began to wobble from side to side I strongly suspected that I needed a screen break. Moments later, when my desk began to shudder, I realised that South Asia must have been struck by a major earthquake.

Appropriate setting

That afternoon, I boarded the first flight to Islamabad, clutching a printout of the final chapter and the latest wire copy from Reuters: 'Dozens are feared dead in a major earthquake', a figure which had risen to over 70,000 by the end of the week.

The book, The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality, focuses on the often fraught relationship between Jack Kennedy and the American civil rights movement, seemingly an unlikely topic for a correspondent based in Delhi.

But, as it turned out, the setting ended up being entirely appropriate.

As I quickly discovered, many of the main heroes of the book - the often isolated officials in the Kennedy administration who called repeatedly for the President to mount a much more aggressive assault on racial segregation in the American south - all spent formative portions of their careers in India.

They were committed Indophiles - or more accurately, Gandhiphiles.

President John F Kennedy
Kennedy's administration included many pro-civil rights campaigners

Chester Bowles, the Deputy Secretary of State in the Kennedy administration, laboured hard to prevent barbers, restaurateurs and real estate agents from discriminating against African diplomats based in Washington and New York, cities which were then considered a hardship posting.

Mr Bowles also dedicated himself to making sure the State Department and Foreign Service, which were almost all-white enclaves at the end of the 1950s, recruited a greater number of black applicants.

Prior to taking up the post, Mr Bowles had served as the US ambassador to India and Nepal in the early 1950s.

'Last chance'

The same position was occupied by the much-lamented J K Galbraith, the cerebral Harvard economist who had long argued that America would never live up to its democratic ideal unless its system of racial apartheid was completely dismantled.

From the ambassador's residence in Delhi, Galbraith watched in fear and dismay as black fury broke loose in the spring and summer of 1963, and demonstrators took to the streets in over a thousand American cities, both north and south.

"This is our last chance to remain in control of matters," Mr Galbraith wrote to attorney general Robert Kennedy in June of that year, "and of avoiding the most serious eventuality which is the possible need to use force to restrain Negro violence."

Then there is Harris Wofford, who toiled as Kennedy's chief civil rights advisor before resigning in frustration in the early summer of 1962 because of the President's moral timidity on the fissile question of racial reform.

The author of India Afire, which was published in 1951, Wofford became a keen student of the philosophy of Gandhian non-violent action, the highly-successful strategy which had driven the British from India.

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King went to India 'as a pilgrim'

On returning to America in the early 1950s, Mr Wofford discussed these ideas with a young preacher based in Montgomery, Alabama, the so-called 'cradle of the Confederacy.' His name was the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr King himself made the long journey to India in 1959, three years after the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott had made him a hero on the subcontinent.

"To other countries I may go as a tourist," he declared on touching down at Delhi airport, "but to India I come as a pilgrim."

'Made in India'

So when Dr King sent children onto the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, in the most climactic confrontation of the civil rights era, he used the same tactic of mass civil disobedience which Gandhi had pioneered with the Dandi Salt March 33 years earlier.

Both men knew that to reveal the hatred of their opponents was to demonstrate the righteousness of their cause - in Gandhi's case, dismantling British rule; in King's, dismantling segregation.

An undated photo of a white-only sign in Louisiana
A segregation sign in the southern United States

There are even contemporary parallels between the struggle for black equality and the ongoing battle in India challenging the inequities of the caste system.

The recent furore sparked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech exploring the possibility of reservations (affirmative action) for India's lower castes in the private sector has loud echoes of the controversy surrounding President Lyndon Johnson's support for the preferential treatment of racial minorities in a famous commencement address at Washington's Howard University in 1965.

As Mr Johnson declared: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others', and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

As I write now, the finished book is sitting on my desk - with the insignia of its New York publisher on the jacket but hopefully with signs inside that it was ultimately 'Made in India'.




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