Ressurecting the Thurman Legacy for the Next Millennium
At the entrance to Morehouse College, stand two monuments to two giants of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Howard Thurman.
King’s legacy looms large in the nation’s memory. But while Thurman was a confidant to King and is widely considered to be the intellectual and spiritual architect of the civil rights movement, the history books have all but forgotten him.
“Thurman is from the underside of history,” says Dr. Walter E. Fluker, director of the Thurman Papers Project at Morehouse. “No one talks about Thurman being a major player in American life because he was one of the great souls who happen to be in Black skin, but he was just as formidable.”
Now as the college prepares to celebrate Thurman’s centennial with a conference devoted to his career, the scholar is about to be rescued from obscurity. Scholars have begun to do critical work on Thurman, just as public figures like authors Iyanla Vanzant, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and tennis star Arthur Ashe began introducing Thurman to a new generation a couple of decades ago.
“There is a confluence of interest in spirituality and a specific interest in Thurman that converges at the end of the millenium,” Fluker says. “Thurman is the holy man for then new millenium.”
Fluker and co-editor Catherine Tumber have catalogued more than 50,000 of Thurman’s unpublished sermons, writing articles and correspondence into a database that soon will be made available to scholars. Thurman’s writings will be published in a three-volume edition called The Sound of the Genuine to be published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2001. And filmmaker Arleigh Prelow has produced a full-length documentary titled Howard Thurman: In Search of Common Ground.
In recent years, books about spirituality have vaulted to the tops of best-selling lists, including one written by the Dali Lama. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey regularly devotes shows to authors of these books, encouraging audiences to get in touch with their spiritual selves. Fluker says he believes these are signs that people are desperately searching for some meaning in their lives. He cautions, however, that Thurman would not appreciate being considered the next New Age guru.
“The ideas many New Age gurus are talking about are themes Thurman has been thinking about since the ‘30s,” he says. Moreover, he says many of the new books are self-help guides masquerading as spirituality. “It’s more flash than depth. The hard questions are not of prosperity or of economic well being. Thurman spoke more to the eternal question of what am I here for? What is my calling?”
While new spirituality offers a “quick fix,” Thurman is hard for people to get into, Fluker says. His challenge is to “translate Thurman to get out him out of the catacombs and allow him to speak to a wider audience.”
To that end, Morehouse has created a Center for Leadership to create a curriculum for ethical leadership training for a new generation of scholars and youth.
A Life of Activism and Faith
Thurman was born in the segregated town of Daytona, Fla. in 1899. Raised and ordained in the Baptist church, he was educated at Morehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1929, Thurman returned to Morehouse as a professor of religion. While he was dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel, Thurman and other Black intellectuals, such as former Howard President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and Franklin Frazier, served as advisors to the civil rights movement in the 1930s.
A proponent of racial and religious harmony, Thurman founded and pastored the Interdominational Church for Fellowship of All People in San Francisco in 1943, the first mutiracial, interfaith church in the United States.
Thurman’s ministry there was deeply influenced by his meeting with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Thurman led the first African American delegation to meet the Indian leader in 1936. Later, he integrated the Gandhian principles of non-violent social change into his own Christian vision. It was this vision that formed the core of his most famous book, Jesus and the Disinherited, which deeply influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. King carried the book in his briefcase during the Montgomery Boycott.
“What does Jesus have to teach those with their backs up against the wall,” Fluker says. “He teaches that the anatomy of fear and hate only leads to violence. He offers the vision of spiritual discipline against resentment. This was the moral basis of the nonviolent movement of the Black freedom movement in the South.”
Thurman later resigned his position with the Fellowship Church when he became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University in 1953. He was the first Black man to occupy such a position at a traditionally White university.
Scholars say Thurman’s real influence is on building community. “Thurman is a significant figure in ecunemical movements,” says Thurman scholar, Luther E. Smith of Emory University and author of Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet. “He speaks to what it means to have a community of Chrisitans, Muslims and Buddhists living in the same community and finding ways to be tolertant of all religious views. The Thurman project seeks to recognize and utilize Thurman as we wrestle with these very difficult questions.”
Perhaps one reason Thurman is not more well known is that he never sought the limelight, Fluker says. Leaders like King, Whitney Young, Vernon Jordan and James Farmer regularly sought out Thurman’s guidance and political counsel. Moreover, many of the scholars who have written African American history have written about the activists, says Preston N. Williams, the Houghton professsor of theology at Harvard University’s Divinity School. “The history of African-American experience that has been written has been that of the activists. The scholars seldom speak about the black intellectuals like Thurman, Mays or Mordecai Johnson.”
Though Thurman maintained his membership in the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Association of Colored People, he preferred dispensing quiet counsel and intellectual guidance to seeking political visibility.
Preserving the Legacy
Thurman has heavily influenced Fluker’s life, as he has so many others. The two met while Fluker was a divinity student at Garrett Theological Seminary. They continued to correspond and, eventually, Fluker was one of 10 Black students invited to study with Thurman in San Francisco in 1978 as part of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust.
Then in 1980, Fluker says he wrote to Thurman, distraught because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in life. “Thurman wrote back, ‘You must wait and listen for the sound of the genuine that is within. When you hear it, it will be your voice and that will be the voice of God.’ When I read that, everything suddenly became clear.” Fluker went on to Boston University where he earned his doctor of philosophy degree.
After Thurman’s death in 1981, his widow, Sue Bailey Thurman, had his papers sent to Boston University. Fluker was the first person to work with the papers for his dissertation, which was later published under the title They Looked for a City: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideal of Community in the Thought of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr.
“My dissertation advisor laughed and said there wasn’t enough in Thurman to justify a dissertation, so he suggested I look at King and Thurman. I wasn’t happy then, but I am thankful know because it laid the groundwork for my work on Thurman today.”
Only now, with the publication of the spiritual leader’s papers, is the advisor’s commonly held attitude about Thurmond being revised. Seminal works on King have been written with no mention of Thurman.
“Many scholars have by-passed Thurman,” Fluker says. You can’t do a book on King and the significance of Gandhi without mentioning Thurman. … But scholarship is an evolutionary process. It would be hard to do a scholarly book on King today without Thurman.”
While he was a visiting professor at Harvard University, Fluker began thinking about publishing a few of Thurman’s speeches. A colleague suggested that he call the Lilly Endowment. Thus was born the Thurman Papers Project, which has been supported by the Lilly Endowment, the Henry Luce Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Historical Publications and Records. Fluker began the project at Colgate Rochester School of Divinity where he was the dean of the Black Church Studies Program.
“It was more work than I imagined,” Fluker says. “I knew I wanted to do it but I didn’t know the universe of text that existed. But Thurman is good and worthy.”
It was not until he came to Morehouse and stood at the entrance looking at the King and Thurman monuments that the symbolism hit him. “My scholarly career had come full circle.”
There are elements of destiny at work as well. Fluker did his dissertation and work on Thurman’s papers at the same institution (Boston U.) where Thurman had been dean and King a student. The work continued in Rochester at Crozer Theological Seminary where both King and Thurman studied.
“When I got [to Morehouse], I just said, ‘Wow.’ I feel like a trustee, a good steward. The universe certainly does bequeath many wonderful gifts.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com