Home > Blog: Currents & Futures > Moving Beyond King & Gandhi


Nowadays, we talk about King as though he were an isolated one-off event.  In some ways, we talk about him as though he were superhuman, his life and exploits becoming part of our national mythology.  

King is one of the people to whom I am deeply indebted, one of the people who make up my lineage.  These four figures are the greatest social change agents of the 20th Century, recognized as world leaders and inspiration to billions of people throughout the world.

My ‘Lineage of Transformation’

Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi was the little man in spectacles and loincloth, the little man with the great words and simple lifestyle who led his nation from colonial oppression to true nationhood… and defeated the world’s greatest superpower with nonviolence.

Martin Luther King, Jr was a great orator, possibly the greatest in the 20th Century.  King was the dignified Christian preacher leading his people in their struggle against the American brand of apartheid, who catalyzed the end of centuries of State-sponsored terrorism, oppression and degradation.

Vaclav Havel was the playwright-turned-dissident-turned-President.  He freed his country from decades of oppression from the second-greatest military power in the world, and did so without firing a shot and without the anger and rancor that lies in the wake of other social and political revolutions.  In fact, the transformation was so peaceful and gentle, it has been known around the world as “The Velvet Revolution”.

Havel was a quiet, bookish playwright, a man whose political writings about the nature of our global society form the most important and relevant political analysis since Thomas Jefferson.

Nelson Mandela went from violent revolutionary to an icon for peace and inclusivity, working hard to bring together the disparate elements of a country torn by racial strife into a model for democracy.

Mandela was the man the South African Apartheid government tried to crush, emerging from his decades of captivity with a smile for both of his supporters and his former jailers.

From criminals to world leaders to icons.  From people despised by the authorities to some of the most recognized and celebrated figures in the world.  

[A CHALLENGE: there are two people I have purposely omitted from my list, who should be included in this Lineage. Can you name them? See below…]

Moving Beyond…

I think it is grossly unfair for some historical revisionists to denigrate the contributions of these Transformation Masters, to downplay their role in forging a new path.  Many young Indians look down on Gandhi for not doing enough. Many South Africans minimize Mandela’s involvement, saying that he did not go far enough, or was too appeasing to the white minority.  Many of these critics were raised a generation or more from the accomplishments of the leaders.

So, it is with a great deal of care that I attempt to separate their true accomplishments from their mythology and hype… and also from their detractors.

When we think of these men, we think about their philosophy and strategy of nonviolence, of nonparticipation in a system that they labeled as “evil” (without labeling the participants as such), of their ultimate victory over those systems.

I believe that the spirit of King, Gandhi, Havel and Mandela can get us through our present malaise, IF WE CORRECTLY UNDERSTAND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS.  If we don’t, we can have all sorts of “King Day Celebrations” (and the attendant sale days) and completely miss the aspects of their personalities, their work and their Spirit that is essential to create to a world that works for all.

It Ain’t About ‘Protest’

From the ‘King Day’ articles that have collected in my inbox, it seems that to honor King, all one has to do is go out and protest something.  (And there’s an awful lot that can be protested nowadays – take your pick.)

When you look at King and the others of The Lineage, they did so much more than “protest”.  (In fact, King and the others were at their LEAST EFFECTIVE when they were just protesting. I think back to King’s misguided actions in Cicero, IL, and the backlash that those actions stirred up.)   

At their best, they were master practitioners of what I call “Strategic Vision Implementation” or “Visionary Direct Action”.  (Others have called it “civil disobedience”, but this focuses on that they were NOT doing — obeying the law — instead of what they WERE doing, which was creating an alternative model of society. Havel was referred to as a “dissident”… as though being against something tells you what they are FOR.)

It’s About Power

It seems amazing that we seem to overlook the fact that each of these men went head-on against the most powerful entities of their time… and won.  

The way they did that is by understanding a few things about power.  Things that we would do well to remind ourselves of in these days and times.

  • Temporal power is illusory.  What seems to be powerful is NOT.  
  • True power comes from the Spirit, not from laws or guns. (And “Spirit” does not necessarily mean “Religion”. Many of the ‘religious” institutions of the time were AGAINST these Transformation Masters.  Even the Black Baptist organization would not support Dr. King!)
  • The exercise of true political power comes from the steady, patient application of Love and Compassion, not anger.
  • For each of them, achieving their objectives took them through the crucible of imprisonment, beatings, exile.  The temporal authorities threw everything at them that they could — and it did not work. Their actions DISEMPOWERED the status quo.

For the ‘status quo’ authorities, the issue was (and is) control and power.  Many of the police who arrested Gandhi, King, Havel and Mandela could have cared less whether or not they sat in the park, or rode the front of the bus, or made salt, or attended a meeting.  What they cared about was OBEDIENCE.

The issue for the controllers was WHO HAS POWER TO DECIDE?

The issue for the Masters of Transformation is WHO HAS THE VISION?

It may take awhile for that vision to manifest.  It may take a few years (or decades) of prison for a clear vision to manifest.  But, if we articulate a common vision for a society based on inclusivity, a vision of ‘A World for All’, that vision will manifest.  

And the American government will have a choice: adapt to the change or be swept into the dumpster of history. Even after the demise of the British Empire, the Soviet Empire, and the white-minority government of South Africa, there is still a little room left in the dumpster for the American Empire.  Stay tuned…

We have a choice: we can treat Gandhi, King, Havel and Mandela like woolly mammoths, fossils frozen in ice, the subjects of celebration… but  NOT emulation. Or, we can use their legacy of nonviolence, love and compassion as the bedrock upon which we can build a movement for a world that works for all.

So, with a heart filled with hope, I wish us all well on this journey.  


Shariff Abdullah

A CHALLENGE: there are two people I have purposely omitted from my list, who should be included in this Lineage. Can you name them?

Historically, one comes before and one comes after the four named above.  Who do you think are the others in this Lineage?

Characteristics of the Lineage:

  1. Spiritually oriented (from many different religious traditions).
  2. Leading mass movements: nonviolent, inclusive and disciplined.
  3. Taking on the most powerful political entities of their time.  Putting their own lives on the line for their ideals. Acting beyond fear.
  4. Using inclusivity, nonviolence and vision implementation as tactics.
  5. Consistently holding a vision in alignment with the highest human values and beliefs.
  6. In victory, are gracious, inclusive and build the kind of society they want to see in the world.
  7. They defeated their adversaries by transforming them into friends.
  8. They are world-class leaders.

So, do you know any world leaders who have these traits?  Write your candidates in the “Comments” section below!

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