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Gandhi’s Grandson Preaches Self-Help To Rejuvenate Civil Rights Movement

May 28, 1988

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Arun Gandhi says civil rights laws are a big stick, but one that has failed to beat racism out of the social fabric of the South.

Instead, he is using a soft voice like the one his grandfather, Mohandas K. ″Mahatma″ Gandhi, used three generations ago to help free India from British rule.

Gandhi, a 53-year-old freelance journalist, is living in Mississippi to conduct research for a book and hopefully rejuvenate what he calls a stalled civil rights movement.

Gandhi’s only weapon is his almost-whisper and a long list of speaking engagements, during which he promotes the self-help programs he once employed to aid India’s poor. Gandhi says he never points fingers - only talks and offers suggestions.

″We have enough hatred in this world, and we don’t want to add to it,″ he says.

So far, the quiet presentations by Gandhi and his wife, Sunanda Gandhi, have caught the ear of dozens of political, religious and business leaders. The Gandhis have been crisscrossing the state since their arrival from Bombay last August.

″I think the name opens some doors and gives them some opportunity for dialogue that may not be open to someone else,″ says state Rep. Leslie King of Greenville, head of the Mississippi Legislature’s Black Caucus.

Black and white Mississippians now dine together, ride the bus together, vote together, and go to school and work together. But they don’t socialize together, Gandhi said in an interview.

″There is no real acceptance, there is just toleration,″ he said.

Gandhi plans to live in Mississippi a year gathering material for his book, which will compare the treatment of blacks in the South with the treatment of the ″untouchables″ in India’s Maharashtra state, his home for the past 30 years.

Although Indian laws have banned the old caste system, which relegated the untouchables to the bottom of the social strata, he said discrimination remains - just as it does for blacks in the United States.

″In both cases we have legally solved the problem, but not socially,″ Gandhi said. ″If we don’t do it at an individual level, it will never happen. The government can’t do it.″

But Gandhi isn’t ignoring the government in his crusade to improve the lot of Mississippi’s blacks.

Gov. Ray Mabus plans to study Gandhi’s proposal for cooperative industries to be owned by poor Mississippians, Mabus spokesman Kevin Vandenbroek said.

″He felt that they were good ones,″ Vandenbroek said of Mabus’ reaction to Gandhi’s suggestions during an hour-long meeting in January.

Instead of government welfare and private charity, Gandhi said Mississippi’s poor, who are primarily black, need their own businesses. In 1962, Gandhi and a few friends established a trust that loaned money to 250 poor Indian farm-worker families to establish their own agricultural and dairy cooperative.

Within six years, Gandhi said, the cooperative produced crops worth $130,000 annually that allowed it to pay the workers more than double the minimum wage prescribed by Indian law.

Gandhi believes adaptations of his Indian programs could help the poor here. And he says Mississippians, particularly religious leaders, are best able to erase racial inequity.

There’s been more discussion in the religious community about reaching out to the poor, including blacks, since the Gandhis began visiting congregations, said chaplain Hal Hutchison of the University of Mississippi’s Episcopal ministry.

″I don’t think that they could prescribe for Mississippi a remedy for economic and employment problems,″ Hutchison said. ″But I think some of the things they say can prompt us to re-evaluate how we’re going about things.″

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