Keeping the faith: The 'untouchable' Martin Luther King Jr. and America's caste system

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The Rev. Tim Ahrens is senior minister at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Downtown Columbus.
The Rev. Tim Ahrens is senior minister at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Downtown Columbus.

In the winter of 1959, 30-year-old, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. headed to India to see the land of the father of nonviolent protests, Mahatma Gandhi.

Earlier, King had finished leading the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. He said to reporters covering the trip, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”

King wanted to meet the people whose battle against the oppressive rule of Great Britain had inspired his own fight for justice in America. During his month-long stay, at the invitation of Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru, he sought out the so-called "untouchables," the lowest caste in the ancient Indian caste system.

Isabel Wilkerson tells this story in her 2020 New York Times bestselling book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” She takes us to the southern tip of India, to the city of Trivandrum in the state of Kerala.

There, Martin and Coretta Scott King visited high school students whose families had been untouchables. The principal introduced the American civil rights leader this way: “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

In Wilkerson’s words, “King was floored. He had not expected the term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister … and ‘For a moment,’ he wrote, ‘I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.’”

Then he began to think of the reality of the 20 million people consigned to the lowest rank of American society for centuries. In his words, as Wilkerson's book explains, “We were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty, quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in our own country.” Finally, he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”

Sixty-three years ago, in a high school in Trivandrum, India, King came to realize the truth of the America system of caste — Black people in America are treated almost exactly like the untouchables of India. We also have a caste system in America.

He would speak to it in the final years of his life, but it was not a theme of his speaking or writing. It took the brilliant research and expository writing of Wilkerson to uncover and reveal the long and twisted history of caste in America.

Caste is the unseen structure of systemic injustice in America.

America is an old house built on a faulty foundation with an infrastructure of caste. In Wilkerson’s words: “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.”

The “untouchable” King, in all his brilliant, provocative, and powerful ways, was able to recognize this long before most people did.

He was not the first to write or speak about the structure of our old house, whose foundation stone was laid in 1619. Ashley Montagu (1942) and Gunnar Myrdal (1944) wrote books about our caste system. Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Indian untouchable who came to America to study economics in 1913, wrote about this. He reached out to meet and talk with W.E.B. DuBois, who already had written about these comparisons.

Together, Ambedkar and DuBois were able to develop these concepts and comparisons. Ambedkar rejected the term untouchables and even the term Harijans given to his people by Gandhi. He chose to call his own people, Dalits, which means “broken people.” He saw the pain and brokenness of his own people and felt they needed their own word to name and claim their reality.

Caste is the bones. Race is the skin. The bones of America are broken. Our system is broken. Black Americans are broken by this old house built in sand on a 400-plus-year-old foundation of injustice. We need to rebuild a nation based on a rock-solid foundation of justice for ALL.

It will take all of us naming each of the broken bones in our structure of injustice to begin to build a just body. Let us take the discovery of the untouchable Martin Luther King Jr. and the revelations of the incredible Isabel Wilkerson to name our caste system for what it is.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us commit to build a new house on a solid foundation of justice and human equality.

The Rev. Tim Ahrens is senior minister at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Downtown Columbus.

Keeping the Faith is a column featuring the perspectives of a variety of faith leaders from the Columbus area.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Faith: The 'untouchable' MLK and America's caste system

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