As introduced in yesterday’s article, racism is entirely incompatible with Bahá’u’lláh’s thought.
“Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness.”
As westerners began to join the Baha’i Faith early in the 1900’s, it was clear that racism would need to be addressed, and Abdu’l Baha, Bahá’u’lláh’s son, set out to do so.
Indeed Abdu’l Baha began this work from the earliest visits of western pilgrims who came to see him in the early 1900’s to learn about Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. In 1911, he invited Louis Gregory, an African American lawyer, to visit him.
The pilgrimage not only had a profoundly transformative spiritual impact on Gregory but provided opportunities for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to stress the vital importance of bringing black and white Americans together. “‘Abdu’l-Bahá said many wonderful things during my brief contact with him in Egypt, which lasted less than a fortnight,” Gregory later recalled. “But more than anything else his discourse was about the American race problem.” When Gregory asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for His guidance, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reiterated the wish He had expressed in His first letter to Gregory, urging him to “Work for unity and harmony between the races.”
When Abdu’l Baha travelled to America in 1912 he employed both word and action to challenge racism afflicting the society which he had entered.
An observation from the diary of Mahmoud-i-Zarqani, one the Persian secretaries travelling with Abdu’l Baha, gives an outsiders insight of the prevailing racist reality and how strange it appeared.
There exists among the whites in America a marked animosity for the blacks who are held in such low esteem that the whites do not allow them to attend their public functions and think it beneath their dignity to mix with them in some of the public buildings and hotels.One day, Dr Zia Bagdadi invited Mr [Louis] Gregory, a black Baha’i, to his home. When his landlord heard about this, he gave notice to Dr Bagdadi to vacate his residence because he had had a black man in his home. Although such prejudice was intense, the influence of the Cause of God and the power of the Covenant is so great that in many cities in America hundreds of black and white Baha’is mingle together and associate with each other as brothers and sisters.[Mahmoud’s diary, p 71]
A well known instance in which Abdu’l Baha confronted American race taboos occurred during a luncheon organised in his honour by the Persian legation. Abdu’l Baha had just been talking on the oneness of humanity at Howard University, a university for African Americans. Yet only whites had been invited to the lunch. An hour before the lunch, Abdu’l Baha asked Louis Gregory to join him. As the party was going in to be seated Gregory, who had not been invited to the meal, headed for the door. Robert Stockman narrates the scene:
“Abdu’l-Bahá led the others to the dinner table, where everyone found their seat; the seating had been carefully set up to follow diplomatic protocol. Everyone sat, but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then rose and said to Ali-Kuli Khan [the Persian Legate] “Where is Mr. Gregory? Bring Mr. Gregory!” Khan hurried off to retrieve Gregory before he left the building. Meanwhile, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá rearranged the seating to open up the seat at his right—the place of honor—for the African American lawyer. Once Gregory joined them, “He stated He was very pleased to have Mr. Gregory there, and then, in the most natural way as if nothing unusual had happened, proceeded to give a talk on the oneness of mankind.”[Robert Stockman, Abdu’l Baha in America, p 186]
This was not enough for Abdu’l Baha. There was another even deeper taboo he wished to confront: interracial marriage. At the time interracial marriage was a crime in many states of the United States.
Louis Gregory and his soon to be wife, Louisa Matthew, a white English woman living in America are at the centre of the story. Abdu’l Baha had noticed a friendship between them, and it was a friendship he encouraged. Again we turn to Stockman’s account. Abdu’l Baha is talking with Louisa:
“How are you & Mr. Gregory getting along?” Startled I answered “What do you mean, we are good friends?” To which He replied emphatically & with His face wreathed in mischievous smiles “You must be very good friends.”
Before He left Chicago I asked Abdul Baha plainly one morning early if I had understood aright that he wished Mr. Gregory & myself to marry. He said “yes.” He did wish it. “I wish the white & the colored to marry,” He added.
Then on my intimating that as a woman I could do nothing to bring it about He asked “Do you love him, would you marry him if he asked you?” & I replied “yes.” Then He said “if he loves you he will ask you.” Later in the morning as I learned some time afterwards, He told Louis it would give Him much pleasure if he & I would marry, which came as an utter surprise to Louis who had no thoughts of marriage. Abdul Baha said “What is the matter? Don’t you love her?” “Yes, as a friend,” Louis said. “Well, think of it,” said Abdul Baha, ”& let me know;…marriage is not an ordinance & need not be obeyed, but it would give me much pleasure if you & Miss Mathew were to marry.”[Abdu’l Baha in America, p 214]
The impact on Louis Gregory of the idea is described in another account (also recorded in Stockman’s work)
“Ashraf was present when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke to Louis Gregory … “When he was permitted to leave and shook my hand, it felt ice-cold,” she noted. “He left the Master’s presence as if he had been struck by lightning. Later, he told me that it took him two hours to regain his composure. During those hours, he had walked aimlessly in streets and that he had passed a huge test in his life.” Louis and Louisa married less than five months later, on September 27, in New York City. Their marriage lasted until their deaths almost four decades later.”
Louis Gregory and Louise Matthew devoted their lives to working for interracial harmony. Louis Gregory was elected repeatedly to national leadership of the Baha’is of America, serving on their National Spiritual Assembly repeatedly until the 1940s.
However returning to 1912, Abdu’l Baha was still not content. He had spoken and continued to speak against racial prejudice hundreds of times to public meetings across Europe and North America. Here is an example:
According to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh all religious, racial, patriotic and political prejudice must be abandoned, for these are the destroyers of the real foundation of humanity. … Reality is one and indivisible. … Consider, for instance, racial distinction and enmity. All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race. There can be no multiplicity of races, since all are the descendants of Adam. This signifies that racial assumption and distinction are nothing but superstition. In the estimate of God there are no English, French, Germans, Turkish or Persians. All these in the presence of God are equal; they are of one race and creation; God did not make these divisions. These distinctions have had their origin in man himself. Therefore, as they are against the plan and purpose of reality, they are false and imaginary.
Abdu’l Baha also arranged for systematic work to be undertaken to overcome racial hostilities. One way in which this was expressed was a series of Race Amity conventions, which Abdu’l Baha had instructed one of his followers, Agnes Parson, a leading Washington socialite, to arrange. Abdu’l Baha underlined the importance of the work in response to news of the successful conclusion of the first Race Amity conference. Work of the United States Baha’i community on racial harmony, equality of races and race unity has continued to the present day. It is an issue that other national Baha’i communities have strived to address: for example in South Africa during aparthied and in New Zealand.
Among the Baha’is influenced by Abdu’l Baha was Alain Locke. He was the first African American Rhodes Scholar, who was to go on to become the Dean of Harlem, and a noted American philosopher. Locke played a leading role in an African American cultural movement against racism that was a precursor to the civil rights movement.
Mahmoud’s Diary, The Diary of Mirza Mahmud-i-Zarqani Chronicling ‘Abdu’l Baha’s Journey to America’. Translated by Mohi Sobhani.
Chrisoptopher Buck, Alain Locke Faith and Philosophy, Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions – Volume Eighteen
Robert H. Stockman, Abdu’l Baha in America
(This article is the 17th in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)