Dennis Dalton on Gandhi, King and Malcolm X

“There’s an unpredictable, incalculable something” that makes you gain moral higher ground that can’t be taken away unless you kill the person, said Dennis Dalton, professor emeritus at Barnard College and renowned scholar on Gandhi.

I had the extreme good fortune to listen to Dalton when he came to my Religion and Conflict class today. The passion and awe he had when talking about the strength of Gandhi’s character and the inspirational rhetoric of MLK Jr. was so evident. I couldn’t believe how he personally connected to Malcolm X, MLK Jr. and Gandhi whether meeting them in person or studying their work extensively.

Dalton talked about the well known “clash of civilization” and “West versus East” debate and criticized that fact that no where does Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington ever mention or regard nonviolent religious movements or the possibility of people drawing peaceful ideas from religion.

Lewis never discussed Gandhi and Hinduism and actually said it was irrelevant when Dalton questioned him at a speech.Lewis always seemed to focus on Islam specifically and that it was a problem and worse off than all the other religions, which frustrated Dalton along with the growing Islamophobia that is sweeping the country since 9/11.

He witnessed this fear first hand at Columbia University where he used to teach and said it was difficult to teach Gandhi after 9/11. It was difficult to be a pacifist at Columbia at that time.

Ingredients for a Successful Non-Violent Movement

Dalton talked about an indescribable spark that makes successful non-violent movement and the luck that plays heavily into it.

The people who lead them are extraordinary geniuses and once in a lifetime like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X was another extraordinary figure who might have taken a different direction alongside peaceful activism had he not been assassinated.

He did identify the trinity of a successful political movement as leadership, ideology and organization, but said there’s still no way to predict because there are numerous other situational factors if the movement will take hold. He believed there are limitations on satyagraha (nonviolent power) like in Nazi Germany; Hitler would have just shot Gandhi, unlike the British who were afraid they had Christ in prison. There are surprises too, the success of the movement against apartheid in South Africa seemed impossible after Sharpesville.

“For every one successful non-violent movement, there are ten failures,” Dalton said.

He named Gandhi’s Salt March as the quintessential peace movement that was inclusive, had an issue that appealed to people and mobilized students and women–a significant achievement for India. King was also known as America’s Gandhi and looked to the Hindu pacifist as a model for his famous Montgomery Bus boycott.

The fact that Gandhi was a moral exemplar, practiced what he preached and stressed simplicity was also important. His goals were to reach economic equality, stop the clash between Hinduism and Islam and abolish the idea of the untouchables. He used guilt as the ultimate weapon on his comrades. I never knew Gandhi was accused of “psychic violence” that hurt people more than anything else for disobeying his orders and not following through with his plans. He even fasted for other’s mistakes saying that it was because he was impure that they did not listen.

Three Good Men

I was very interested to learn the similarities and differences in strategy and motivation between Gandhi, King and Malcolm X. Here were three men from three different religions: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, all drawing on their religions to overcome oppression and achieve freedom and justice. Their ideas influenced many other leaders; they drew inspiration from various sources and were charismatic, educated personalities with a clear message.

King and Gandhi believed strongly that the power of love and nonviolence would ultimately lead to success. Malcolm’s passion came from bitter anger over racism, while Gandhi and King worked through the concept of love and loving thy enemy. They believed the ends did not justify the means. You could not strive for good through immoral or unethical means. Malcolm X rejected this of course, stressing at first black separatism and that no man should bear the burden of being attacked and not be allowed to defend himself. He viewed whites as evil and white culture to be Satanic.

Dalton versus Malcolm

Dalton told us an amazing story of how he attended a Nation of Islam rally in Chicago in 1962 where Malcolm X was speaking. Dalton was the only white man there in the crowd and after the speech, he went up to Malcolm, introduced himself and asked how he could help support black liberation and equality. Malcolm said emphatically: “Nothing.”

Three years later, Dalton met him again and Malcolm apologized and said he regretted what he said that day and instead shook his hand and replied to the question differently: “Brother, you are doing it… We can resist this war together.”

I’m amazed that Dalton got that close to Malcolm and caused him to rethink about the radical, exclusive mindset he had in trying to reach equality. After coming back from Hajj and leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X realized he was wrong and no longer saw whites as the devil and saw them as human beings just like everyone else. Dalton told us that Malcolm was on the verge of becoming a Sufi near the end of his life. Sufism is known for being a pacifist, more open interpretation of Islam according to Western standards.

Future of Peace Movements

Interestingly, Dalton hopes for another Gandhi or King-like person in his lifetime and is confused on why there are not more protests and movements against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he thinks maybe everyone is too preoccupied with the economy to care, but he is utterly outraged over the wars and too many civilian casualties.

He was hopeful for a non-violent movement in the US concerning Middle East policies, but believes it is more likely and necessary to appear in Palestine. He found there to be a brutally arrogant tone in China and doesn’t think there is a possibility for a movement in Tibet or in East Turkmenistan.

Dalton said he was “terribly worried” about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democratic activist who has been just released from house arrest last week (and who he also met.) The miliary junta in power don’t care for non-violence and he believes the odds are stacked against her survival despite the tremendous support she has from her people who love and revere her.

Dalton said he is still not over the death of King and feels if not for his and Malcolm’s assassinations, the whole country could have been entirely different.

2 thoughts on “Dennis Dalton on Gandhi, King and Malcolm X

  1. Dear Miss Aberra,

    As-salam alaykum.

    In sha Allah, all is well with you. I just came across your blog in doing research about Malcolm X and Islamic spirituality. There is an old article out there that speaks about this in more detail, and in searching for it, I also came across your writings on Professor Dalton’s conversation with Malcolm X on his interest in Sufism. If this is true, we never hear much at all about Malcolm ra and his spirituality. I’m wondering if you could share anything more about about Professor Dalton’s insight from his lecture. Thanks very much for your assistance, and thank you for sharing your posts.


    Justin Mauro Benavidez

    • Wa alaykum assalam Justin,

      Thanks for stopping by my blog! Unfortunately I was only able to interact with Professor Dalton during that one class and as it’s been several years, I don’t have much more than what I’ve shared in my blog post. I wish I took more copious notes during his lecture! I would definitely recommend contacting Professor Dalton with further questions about Malcolm’s exploration of Sufism, because I agree, we don’t really know much about that since he was only Muslim for a short period of his life. His email is:

      What kind of research are you doing?

      Best of luck!

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