Even before the Montgomery boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled with how to use nonviolent resistance against the often violent responses from Segregation proponents. In 1957 King wrote: “The nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. This was always a cry that we had to set before people that our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past.”
“The problem was that non-violence didn’t make sense to most people in the beginning,” said Henry Niles during a 1992 discussion at his Blue Ridge cottage overlooking Berryville. “So when King said that he wanted to go to India I thought that it was a pretty good idea.”
Niles (1900-1993), the former president and board chairman of the Baltimore Life Insurance Company and his wife Mary Cushing (Howard) Niles, were both early supporters of the American Civil Rights movement and active in Quaker concerns. Inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, traveled throughout India during February and March, 1959. Dr. King visited the Gandhi family during the trip.
King’s visit to India was made with assistance from the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Baltimore. Henry Niles was instrumental in arranging the trip. Recounting a conversation after King’s return from India, King told Niles, “I think that now I finally understand how non-violence can best be used.”
By all accounts, King’s visit to India affected him in a profound way. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King said, “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.”
Non-violence became a central pillar of MLK’s philosophy and his lifelong fight for social justice: “We had to make it clear also that the nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system. And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle in the South is not so much the tension between white people and Negro people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will not be a victory merely for fifty thousand Negroes. But it will be a victory for justice, a victory for good will, a victory for democracy.”
In addition to their early support for civil rights, Henry and Mary Cushing Niles actively supported other social causes. Niles reminisced about the time Mary Cushing visited then U.S. Democratic senator from Maryland Joe.Tydings asking that Tydings urge President Johnson to stop sending troops to Vietnam. Tydings replied “I hear from the clergy, I hear from civic leaders, I hear from all kinds of groups. But where are the businessmen?” When Mary Cushing returned home she told her husband, “Joe Tydings needs the business community to speak out. What are we going to do about it?”
Niles decided that he would write an open letter to President Johnson and ask as many business executives as possible to sign it because businesspeople were generally thought to be supportive of the war. Niles drafted the letter and circulated it among his business contacts. In January 1967, Niles published the letter in The Washington Post along with the signatures of the 173 business executives he had convinced to sign-on to the protest. The group later became known as the “Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace” and played a significant role in the social movement to end the war.