As I boarded the train home from Barack Obama's inauguration, it occurred to me how, in so many parts of the world, the coming of a member of a different tribe to power would not have been good news for the Farrell family.
In too many countries, I might have been met by club-wielding security officers herding all the white riders to the back of the train. I might be giving up my job to somebody's cousin. Or watching tanks cross the border of my ethnic homeland, firing indiscriminately at schools and hospitals, as bulldozers pulverized my village. I would be expecting my own ethnic group to respond in kind, with car bombs or suicidal massacres.
Ultimately, I concluded that the great unmentioned name at yesterday's ceremony was that of Mohandas Gandhi—the father of non-violent resistance. In the midst of a century that plowed new depths in human savagery, Gandhi led India to freedom and independence through largely peaceful protest, and inspired Martin Luther King.
Certainly, King had other influences as he crafted his strategy of passive resistance in the 1950s and the early 1960s. He credited the New Testament, and the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, among others. And there were many black leaders—Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Malcolm X—who also took turns leading the long battle against slavery and segregation. Gandhi himself credited the pacifism of Leo Tolstoy, who in turn was said to be inspired by the Sermon on the Mount.
Nor should we forget the contributions made to the civil rights movement by white America. The invariably gracious and generous African-Americans I spoke to yesterday said it was a special day for them, but a victory for us all. It had to be, said Ezra Hill, the 79-year-old member of the black Tuskegee Airmen I encountered at the Capitol: "There were only 20 million of us," he said. "We couldn't do it ourselves."
But it took a plan to rally black America, and to ignite the conscience of white America, before the civil rights movement could succeed—and free us all—and get us to where we stood yesterday. It was Gandhi and his followers in India who demonstrated that non-violence was not just a moral imperative, but actually would work. It has worked since in the American South, in South Africa, and in the Philippines.
We've given many tributes to King's non-violent movement in the last few months—but we've tended to treat it as an American thing.
On a troubled planet, where the greedy still subjugate seething minorities, it would be wise to remember that non-violence came first, worked first, in foreign lands. And by acknowledging its international roots, we might encourage its continued use as a weapon against oppression.