As a child, the voice and stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed in the halls of my home. My father, Reverend Michael Millben, would reminisce about his days marching with Dr. King in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as a glorified chauffeur to his beloved mentor Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., simply to posture himself as a pupil and maximize time learning from him. I would provoke my mother, Pastor Althea Millben, to tell me the story over and over of the moment she and Dr. Coretta Scott King sang in duet together during her days in college at Langston University in Oklahoma. Dr. King, the King family, and the Millben family have their own place in Black History.
As I prepare for my first trip to India, Dr. King’s voice echoes again in my home, as I listen to his reflections on his first trip and pilgrimage to India in 1959, his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, and the commonalities the United States and India faced regarding equality during that moment of Black History. My heart’s sentiments echo Dr. King’s words, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.”
King’s trip to India had a profound influence on his understanding of nonviolent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected: “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”(King Institute, Stanford University)
It was Gandhi’s universal principles that shaped the essence of the Civil Rights Movement, moments like the Montgomery boycott, and what ultimately led to the legislative victory of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King, as Gandhi, knew the US-India relationship was uniquely bonded by diplomacy and divinity. It was a relationship positioned to influence the world to reclaim cultural identity through a spiritual compass.
“We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset,” King remembered. “But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism.” (King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” July 1959, in Papers 5:231–238).
King observed that the common experiences of African American and Indian people brought light to racialism and imperialism globally. And their shared philosophies and call for liberation sparked an awakening between the two largest democracies.
There is no greater gift from God than freedom. And the current US-India relationship is now repeating history, both modeling and compelling the world to reclaim freedom. Freedom in religion, freedom in speech, freedom in market, and freedom in love.
The fight for freedom and my platform as an entertainer are congruent. Working for a US President and now having sung for three consecutive US Presidents, I have had a front row seat to movements of freedom in America and across the world. As a participant in these movements, my appreciation for those freedom fighters who paved the way for freedom deepens.
If there is one challenge I give to you reading, it is this. Become a modern-day King or Gandhi. Live out the legacy of my father, my mother, your father, your mother, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., Dr. Coretta Scott King, Mahatma Gandhi. Let’s collectively take up the mantle to see freedom ring while preserving the rich cultural tapestry of our heritages. Heritages that have been intertwined since as early as the 7th century when “Siddis,” Indians of African descent, first called India home. Once enslaved, but now free. And now African-Indians echo the words of the great Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda, “I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.”
Let us not become complacent to movements of freedom and equality through our own created exemptions. No one is exempt. Let’s continue to fight enslavement in any form as we defend every individual’s right to be free.
I love America, and I deeply love India. I commit to continuing my role as an ambassador between our two great countries upholding the flag of freedom. And I won’t relent until the words of the old negro spiritual ring in truth, “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”
Feature image photo credit: Shann Swift & SwiftShots
Mary Millben is one of the world’s celebrated voices having performed for three consecutive U.S. Presidents (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump), international royalty, and world leaders. Featured at The White House, the United States Congress, for the NFL, NBA, MLB, Off-Broadway, and in concert halls worldwide. Mary is a former White House Presidential Appointee to George W. Bush and a Global Ambassador for Education Africa. Mary is Founder/CEO of JMDE Enterprises, Inc. She is a strong advocate for women and girls, education reform, and America’s troops, veterans, and military families.
Photo credit: Ambient Skies Production Company