The Wisdom of Howard Thurman

By Martin Doblmeier, Director of Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story 

When Martin Luther King Jr. took to the streets leading those historic Civil Rights marches that eventually transformed America, he often carried in his suitcase a small book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited. Jesse Jackson and other Civil Rights icons carried the same book “just as a reference.”

The book, written by African American theologian Howard Thurman, speaks to how Jesus Christ was born a poor “outsider,” a member of the Jewish minority under Roman occupation, without rights and privileges in the wider society. For Thurman, Jesus was the life-model for black Americans or anyone who lives each day with their “backs against the wall.” Written in 1949, the book today is a religion classic.

Jesus Christ was born a poor “outsider,” a member of the Jewish minority under Roman occupation, without rights and privileges in the wider society.

Howard Thurman was born in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1899. His grandmother spent the first 20 years of her life enslaved. She never learned to read or write yet it is said she taught young Howard more about God and religion than he ever learned in college or theology school. She shared stories that instilled in him an awareness that despite the way the world tries to deny a person’s basic humanity – every person has inherent dignity and value simply because they are a “child of God.” Believing that at your core, she insisted, provides all the backing required to withstand whatever cruelties society throws at you.

Growing up Thurman witnessed first hand the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Forced segregation was accepted everywhere. Against that suffering, Thurman found God in nature and experienced a “oneness” that bound together himself, other human beings and the natural world around him. It was a profoundly mature insight for such a young man.

Thurman would go on to author more than 20 books and become one of the most celebrated religious figures of the last century – a true prophetic voice. He believed less in denominational religion and more in the centrality of the individual’s religious experience as validation of God’s presence. Thurman’s interest in mysticism and his openness to the beliefs of others makes him a favorite today among those who profess “I am spiritual but not religious.”

Thurman identified the tragic role Christianity played in affirming segregation and decried how Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in America.”

Thurman identified the tragic role Christianity played in affirming segregation and decried how Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in America.” While Martin Luther King Jr. is often credited with the expression, Thurman was speaking publicly about it in the 1930s and ’40s. He was convinced if there was any safe space for the races to come together it should be in church. Christianity, he believed, had failed to unite but instead was too often guilty of division.

He felt so strongly about the need for unity that in 1944 he went to San Francisco to co-found one of America’s first intentionally multi-race, multi-faith centers of worship, the Church for the Fellowship for All Peoples.

Thurman remained spiritually “hungry” throughout his life. He spent much of his professional years teaching on college campuses where the students fueled his sense of spiritual adventure. But it was a trip to India and a visit with Gandhi that ultimately changed his life.

Gandhi wanted to learn more about the black struggle in America. In turn, he shared with Thurman how non-violent resistance was more than a political tactic. It was central to living a spiritual way of life. Thurman brought that concept back to America and shared it with everyone who would listen, including one of his spiritual mentees – a young Martin Luther King Jr.

Today in our divided country we could use a little more Howard Thurman.

Today in our divided country we could use a little more Howard Thurman. His life’s work focused on a non-violent path and celebrated the dignity of all and the benefits that come from the search for common ground. If we would only take the time to “go deep” and discover through our own individual religious experiences the many ways we “are all one” – it might offer some guidance as we struggle for a better world.

Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story is a new documentary film currently airing on Public Television. The filmmaker is Martin Doblmeier (BONHOEFFER, The Power of Forgiveness, the Reinhold Niebuhr Story). More information at www.journeyfilms.com

If you want to learn more about the intersection of faith and film please visit us at the Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn

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