Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), also known as Mahatma (a Sanskrit term meaning "great soul") Gandhi, was among the most influential figures of the 20th century. A native of India and member of the merchant caste, he studied law in England with the intent of pursuing a career as a barrister, a lawyer specializing in court cases. In 1893, Gandhi accepted a legal position in South Africa, and over the next decade became engaged in efforts to combat the discrimination that Indian immigrants faced in both the British and Boer (Dutch) communities there. This led Gandhi to develop a technique of nonviolent resistance to discriminatory laws that became known as satyagraha or "soul force." When petitions and published editorials failed to stop the enactment of a 1907 law requiring Indians in South Africa to register and carry government-issued passes, Gandhi organized a mass meeting in which many participants symbolically burned their passes while others pledged not to apply for the document. This led to the first of Gandhi's several imprisonments; it also demonstrated the power of satyagraha when the law was repealed in 1911. After a similarly successful campaign against a South African poll tax, Gandhi returned to India in 1915 as a hero.
Gandhi's first project upon his return was the founding of the satyagraha ashram. This was a communal farm that welcomed members of all castes, including members of the lowliest Harijan caste, who were assigned society's dirtiest and unhealthiest tasks and were known as "untouchables." Expanding his goals to both the independence of India from British colonial rule and the equal participation of all castes in Indian society, Gandhi was soon at the forefront of nonviolent protests in India. When the colonial government charged Gandhi with sedition in 1922 in what came to be known as the Great Trial, he pleaded guilty but argued that the law itself was unjust. Over the next quarter-century, Gandhi led other protest efforts—such as the Salt March of 1931, in which Indians marched to the sea in opposition to a British law that prohibited them from making salt. He spent extended periods in jail, continuing to campaign against injustices from his cell by going on hunger strikes. In the last decades of his life, Gandhi became a leading figure in the effort to obtain India's full independence from Britain.
Gandhi's efforts in both South Africa and India resonated for those who wished to challenge segregation and discrimination against African Americans in the United States. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to Gandhi on behalf of the NAACP in the 1920s and received an encouraging response, while Gandhi's struggles in India were covered closely by the African American press throughout the 1930s. Several prominent civil rights leaders traveled to India in 1936 and attempted to persuade Gandhi to visit the United States. While Gandhi declined because of the ongoing struggle in India, he offered encouragement with his comment, "It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." This observation proved prophetic, given Gandhi's influence on James Lawson, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and other leaders. After attending a lecture on Gandhi while at theological seminary, Martin Luther King Jr. began to study his methods. King's use of nonviolent direct action in the Montgomery bus boycott showed that Gandhi's tactic could win victories in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.