In 1893, a London-trained lawyer named Mohandas K. Gandhi left his native India to handle a legal matter for two Indian merchants in South Africa. Soon after his arrival, he was thrown off a train for refusing to leave a "whites only" compartment. Skeleton-thin and painfully shy, Gandhi spent a bitter cold night in the railway station wondering whether he should stay in South Africa or return to India. By morning he decided to stay and to resist the racial laws of South Africa. The train incident sparked a political awakening in Gandhi, and he would later describe the experience as "the most important factor" in directing his future political life.
Gandhi remained in South Africa for twenty-one years, and during this time he became active in politics and began formulating his ideas on nonviolent resistance as a means to bring about political and social reform. At age forty-six, he returned to India, then a country of 500 million people, two-thirds of which were ruled directly by the British. Back in his homeland, Gandhi expanded on the strategies he had developed in South Africa and used them to help bring an end to British rule in India.
Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, by a Hindu militant who considered him too tolerant of Muslims, and he has become the dominant symbol of nonviolence resistance. His philosophy is credited with inspiring civil rights activists around the globe, including Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Tibet's Dalai Lama, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Barack Obama, who describes Gandhi as "a hero not just to India, but to the world."