Friday, February 12, 2016

Black History Month: Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman had no more money.  He had spent every penny he had buying a train ticket to Jacksonville, Florida, and he'd just been told that he'd have to pay extra to ship his trunk.  The schools in his hometown, Daytona Beach, Florida, only went to the seventh grade, and if he wanted to go to high school, he had to go to Jacksonville.

He sat down on the steps and began to cry.  A black man, dressed in overalls, saw him, walked over, and paid the charges.

He never introduced himself.

When Howard Thurman published his autobiography, With Head and Heart, he dedicated it "to the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago."

Perhaps, if that stranger had not happened by and been moved to pay for Howard Thurman's baggage, we would never have heard the "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

Howard Thurman was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, on November 18, 1899, and raised by his grandmother, who was a former slave.  After high school, he went on to Atlanta's Morehouse College, where he graduated in 1923 as valedictorian.  From there, he attended Rochester Theological Seminary, graduating in 1926.  His first church was Mount Zion Baptist in Oberlin, Ohio.

Thurman, in January, 1929, left his pastorate and studied at Haverford College.  There, he encountered the Quaker theologian Rufus Jones, who led the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group that was both pacifist and interracial.  While studying with Jones, Thurman became aware of the need to cultivate a personal relationship with God.  Thurman's time at Haverford started him on his path that would emphasize activism rooted in faith, guided by spirit, and maintained in peace.  He described his time with Jones as the watershed event of his life.  But where Jones thought in a global sense, Thurman thought locally.  He asked the question, "How can we manage the carking fear of the white man's power and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?"

He began exploring these issues, and three years later, he wrote an essay titled, "Peace Tactics and a Racial Minority."  In this essay, he wrote of a white America who had the "will to dominate and control the Negro minority", which gave blacks a hatred that was spiritually crippling.  Perhaps, he suggested, a "technique of relaxation" may break the cycle.

In 1935-36, Thurman led a delegation of African-Americans to South Asia, where they met the great Mohandas Ghandi.  Ghandi, in his discussions with Thurman, asked, did Christianity have the power to overcome white racism? He pointed out that Hindu principles gave his countrymen a basis for their nonviolence resistance to British power.  Couldn't Christianity do the same for African-Americans?

Thurman pondered that question in the years that followed.  He began to combine what he had learned from Ghandi about nonviolence with what he'd learned from Jones about one's personal relationship with God, and infused his learning with a religious sense of protest against race-based segregation.

In 1944, Thurman went to San Francisco and helped found the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.  It was the first congregation in the United States that was fully integrated and multi-cultural.  "Do not be silent," he encouraged its members.  "There is no limit to the power that may be released through you."

Thurman's 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, was a foundational work for a nonviolent civil rights movement.  He interpreted the basic goal of Jesus' life as helping the disinherited people of the world change from within so that they could survive in the face of oppression.  He wrote that a love rooted in the "deep river of faith" would help people overcome persecution.

In 1953, Thurman became the dean of Marsh Chapel, located at Boston University.  He taught classes and preached sermons that inspired students who were committed to social justice, and who would later lead and participate in the Civil Rights movement.

One of the students he inspired was a fellow Morehouse man who'd come to Boston to earn a doctoral degree.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman served as Marsh Chapel's dean for twelve years.  During that time, he ministered to over 30,000 people from a variety of faiths and nationalities.  He retired from Boston University in 1965, and then founded the Howard Thurman Educational Trust.  The Trust would provide funding for college students in need.  He continued to write and speak until his death, eventually authoring 21 books.  He died on April 10, 1981.

In his book, Footprints of a Dream, Thurman wrote, "The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.  In a moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires."

Perhaps it was the movement of the spirit of God that gave an anonymous man the wisdom to "dare a deed", and pay the freight charges for a young boy, so that the boy's hope would be kindled and thus inspire others, including those that would lead the fight for civil rights.

Sources used:

Stefon, Matt, "Howard Thurman : American Theologican and Scholar," Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
"This Far By Faith: People of Faith: Howard Thurman," PBS.org website
"About Dr. Thurman," Boston University, Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, website.

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