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Your Dream Is Our Dream

JANUARY 19, 2015

On March 18, 1965, Ram Bagai -- the President of the California-based "Films of India" -- sent a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in order to lend his support to the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote:

“With great respect – and deep admiration, we watch your concerted effort for the dignity of the Negro in the United States. We want you to know that your dream is our dream – that your prayer is our prayer.”
Any connection between the two organizations -- "Films of India" and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – seems, at first glance, unlikely. Unlike the direct political activism of King and Abernathy, Bagai’s mission was simply to bring Hindi cinema to American audiences; in the mid-60s, he took great efforts in arranging screenings of Hindi films in theaters across California. Yet, Bagai described his sympathy with the Civil Rights Movement, mentioning to King and Abernathy his shared dream of racial equality.

Bagai’s story, itself, was dramatically shaped by the long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States. In 1915, he first arrived in the U.S. as a young boy with his two brothers and their parents Vaishno Das and Kala Bagai, where they were briefly detained at the Angel Island detention center. His father soon set up a successful business in San Francisco, and became a supporter of the radical, anti-colonial Gadar Party. Despite the financial success his family saw, their life in the Bay Area was punctuated by instances of racial discrimination. After they bought a home in Berkeley, California, for instance, the Bagai family found that their neighbors had locked up the house so that the family could not enter.1 These acts of discrimination took a legal form in the historic Immigration Act of 1924, which denied Asians the right to citizenship on the basis of racial status. Stripped of his right to citizenship, which forced him to liquidate his property, Vaishno Das Bagai tragically committed suicide, submitting a letter to the San Francisco Examiner outlining his reasons:

I do not choose to live the life of an interned person; yes, I am in a free country and can move about where and when I wish inside the country. Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.
In his letter to King, Ram Bagai mentioned none of this, but simply stated “your dream is our dream,” “your prayer is our prayer.”

Seeing an opportunity to directly support the Civil Rights Movement, Bagai committed to donating the entire proceeds of a New York premiere of the Hindi film 2 Eyes, 12 Hands (Do Aankhen, Barah Haath, 1957) to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Bagai explained that the film’s social message of “love and nonviolence” had a contemporary resonance with King’s approach to civil disobedience.

The histories of King and his admiration for the Gandhian strategies of non-violence have been well-documented over the years, as have been the long-standing connections between South Asian and African-American struggles for equality. This letter serves as one example of the lesser known ways that South Asian Americans supported the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

1. Bagai, Rani. "'Bridges Burnt Behind': The Story of Vaishno Das Bagai." Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2015.