The Story Behind The Mahatma Gandhi Statue Outside The Milwaukee County Courthouse
As we kick off a new season of Bubbler Talk, listener Chris Cantwell says he recently stumbled upon something outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse that took him by surprise.
“So, I had jury duty the first week of March, and during our lunch break, I decided to take a walk around the courthouse,” he explains. “As I rounded the corner, I saw the statue and fully expected it to be a statue of you know, Solomon Juneau or some figure from legal history, and was pretty taken aback when I got close enough to see that it was a statue of Gandhi.”
Cantwell is a history professor at UW-Milwaukee, and was curious to figure out: Why this statue and why here?
It’s a 10-foot-tall bronze likeness of Indian civil rights leader Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi located on the east side of the courthouse in MacArthur Square.
Gandhi is posed mid-stride. He’s grasping a walking stick and sporting his signature spectacle eyeglasses, sandals and a dhoti — traditional dress for Indian men. His gaze is directed east, toward downtown Milwaukee and further to Lake Michigan.
The answer to how the statue got here dates back to Oct. 5, 2002.
“It was a beautiful, sunny, sunny day, and the weather Gods, I think, blessed us in Milwaukee,” says Bobby Dhir, past president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Asian Indian Organizations.
He says the group organized a dedication of the sculpture in 2002 close to Gandhi’s birthday.
“Roughly 500 people were all covering that area," Dhir explains. "We had chairs, and people came and sat, and then we had dignitaries — two, three rows of dignitaries. We had parents and, of course, we had students from UWM and Marquette University, and then we also had had invited several school children.”
The crowd sang the national anthems of the U.S. and India, plus a few people gave speeches.
“Then we had the children recite some peaceful rhythms. We call them 'Bhajans,' which is more like a chanting of some mantras, basically alluding to peace and prosperity for anyone and everyone that was in the audience and beyond,” says Dhir.
The country had just witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a year earlier. Dhir says the Wisconsin Coalition of Asian Indian Organizations had recently raised more than $250,000 to donate to 9/11 victims and their families.
The group wanted to give back and thought about Mahatma Gandhi — the “father” of India who started the nonviolent movement to free India from British colonizers.
“Now of course, everybody here in the United States also knows how ... Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King then followed the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi to achieve the civil rights movement of the 1960s. So, we felt that Mahatma Gandhi was a well-known figure, and a well acknowledged name in the United States as well,” he says.
The Milwaukee statue is a replica of the Gandhi sculpture in front of the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. They’re both by Kolkata artist Gautam Pal, who the India Express reports has had over 50 Gandhi sculptures commissioned around the world.
Our listener Chris Cantwell says the sculpture’s historical context — the year 2002 — adds to the story. “Because that was a moment of, you know, the question of just whether or not America was going to live up to its promise of religious diversity after 9/11, in terms of being actually accepting or suspicious of people's religious backgrounds. So yeah, I mean, that puts the statue in kind of a narrative context," he says.
Since Gandhi was a lawyer, the Wisconsin Coalition of Asian Indian Organizations strategically placed the sculpture at the courthouse, with three arches behind him: on the left, it says "truth;" right behind Gandhi, it says "justice" and the arch on the right, behind his left shoulder, says "order."
“So between truth, justice, and order, it was a very opportune place to be,” says Dhir.
The sculpture is a touchstone for Asian Indians — a group that’s tripled in size in Wisconsin since 2002, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Dhir says even to this day, members of the Indian community will take visitors to the statue.
The area in MacArthur Square where the Gandhi statue stands was designated the India-America Friendship Park in 2003.
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