Howard Thurman had a connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. right from the days the former was dean at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel while the latter was enrolled at the university. King would attend chapel service and watch Thurman preach; he usually took notes. Minister and mystic Thurman had also schooled with King’s father, “Daddy King,” at Morehouse College. Yet, the first time Thurman and King would have a serious personal encounter was in the 1958 stabbing incident that almost killed King years before his assassination.
King was in a Harlem department store, signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which he led. He was suddenly approached by a 42-year-old well-dressed African-American woman Izola Ware Curry, who was later identified as mentally disturbed. “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” Curry said and plunged a 7-inch, ivory-handled steel letter opener into King’s chest.
King survived. It was while in the hospital that he got a visit from Thurman, who advised him to cultivate his interior life, that is, his personal relationship with God, before thinking of moving forward with his social activism. Essentially, that had been Thurman’s message to scores of leaders in the civil rights movement he pastored and taught.
King, an American Baptist minister, was then the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement. Thurman asked him to take “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment,” a report noted. King took his word and though the two were not really “personally close”, Thurman impacted King and his work — both spiritually and intellectually. As sources said, King used to carry along his “own well-thumbed copy” of Thurman’s well-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” in his pocket during the Montgomery bus boycott. King quoted and paraphrased Thurman exhaustively during his sermons.
Thurman was also one of the first pastors who advised King to bring together Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance with the civil rights movement. That will eventually help propel the movement. In spite of his influence on King and the civil rights movements in general, Thurman remained largely known until recently when a film was made about him.
Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman grew up amid the racial atrocities at the time. The grandson of former slaves, Thurman lost his father, a railroad worker, at the age of seven. He was therefore partly raised by his maternal grandmother, who shaped him spiritually. “I learned more, for instance, about the genius of the religion of Jesus from my grandmother than from all the men who taught me all … the Greek and all the rest of it,” Thurman said in an interview.
Along the way, he graduated as valedictorian from Morehouse College, with a Bachelor of Arts in economics in 1923 and from Rochester Theological Seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1926. He then became pastor of a Baptist church in Oberlin, Ohio, and pursued graduate course work in theology at Oberlin College. In 1932, he was appointed dean of the chapel at Howard University in Washington.
After he had visited Gandhi in India and the two had spoken about the value of nonviolent resistance in dealing with oppression, Thurman came back home to the U.S. to preach the same. To Thurman, spiritual cultivation should go hand in hand with social activism. Some activists began criticizing him for not personally marching or getting more publicly involved in the civil rights struggle. But others, including King, would later come to realize the significance of cultivating one’s interior life to prepare for the enormous task ahead, as Thurman preached.
Thurman, a shy, private man, and an intellectual saw nothing wrong with worshiping with people of other faiths, thus making him the first pastor to co-found an intentionally multiracial and multifaith church in the United States. In the film released about him in 2019, “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story,” the spiritual genius said: “Whether I’m Black, White, Presbyterian, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, in the presence of God all of these categories by which we relate to each other fade away.”
Despite shaping much of 20th century America with his views on social activism, many have shunned him. Some historians say it was so difficult to define him. What Martin Doblmeier, who directed the film about Thurman knows is that he was a “patron saint of those who say I’m spiritual not religious.”
“He [Thurman] can put angry hearts at ease,” said Doblmeier. “You can’t read Howard Thurman and come away with an angry heart.”