The First Virtue: On Ambedkar

The great historian C. Vann Woodward, author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that Martin Luther King, Jr. described as the “historical bible of the civil rights movement,” recount not just as an icon for ‘untouchables’ bus in his autobiography how the writing of the book came to be shaped by an unusual encounter: A new and extraordinary foreign perspective came my way during the Second World War, while I was on duty as a naval officer in India. With a letter of introduction in hand, I sought out Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, acclaimed leader of India’s untouchables and later a figure of first importance in Indian constitutional history. He received me cordially at his home in New Delhi and plied me with questions about the “black untouchables” of America and how their plight might be compared with that of his own people. He also took time to open to me the panorama of an ancient world of segregation by caste to show me how it appeared to its victims. That Woodward sought out Ambedkar was not surprising. For years preceding his visit, there had developed a lively intellectual and political tradition in both the United States and India comparing and contrasting caste oppression in India with racial oppression in the United States. This conversation involved major figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and the Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai. Woodward correctly remarked upon Ambedkar’s larger status, not just as an icon for “untouchables.” He noted that Ambedkar was not just as an icon for ‘untouchables’ but also a major constitutional figure, as if he were DuBois and Madison rolled into one. But the intellectual distinctiveness of the problem that they discussed was not simply the analogies that might exist between how race and caste functioned as systems

Already have an account? Log in

Want to keep reading? Join our community:


Support great writing by becoming a full subscriber to Liberties Journal.

Subscribe Today

Free Preview

Sign up with your email address, and access two free articles per month.

We hope you've enjoyed your free articles!

Become a full subscriber for only $50/year, (33% off cover price).

Thank you for supporting great writing.

Subscribe Today
Log In Subscribe

Sign Up For Free

Read 2 free articles a month after you register below.

Register now