This is the grave of Howard Thurman.
Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman was an incredibly bright boy with a strong family background. He was largely raised by women–his mother and grandmother, as his father died young–and he struggled for an education. Whites did everything possible to ensure Black kids could not get real educations. There were only three high schools for Black children in the entire state of Florida at that time and Thurman went to the one in Jacksonville, over 100 miles from his home. He almost didn’t make it. As he famously told later, when he got to the train, it turned out he did not have enough money for his luggage. He thought that his education was over. He started to cry. Someone came over to check on him and when he explained, the guy paid for his trip. What a difference maker! Things were tough for him, but he succeeded. Thurman always succeeded in moving ahead in life. He got into Morehouse College in Atlanta and graduated as valedictorian in 1923.
Thurman decided to go into the ministry and attended Rochester Theological Seminary for an advanced degree. While there, he got a calling for a church in Oberlin, Ohio, which he took upon graduation. He worked there from 1926-28. He then moved back to Atlanta for a joint position at Morehouse and Spellman, teaching philosophy and religion. Then in 1932, he took the job as the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard, where he worked until 1944.
Thurman was deeply interested in mysticism and was a constant explorer of interesting religious experiences. In this, he could be pretty far removed from the theologically conservative leadership at Howard, with whom he frequently clashed. He met with different spiritual leaders from around the world. Perhaps most importantly, at least in terms of the larger arc of American history, in 1936, he led a contingent of Black religious leaders to India to visit, among others, Mahatma Gandhi. Now, Gandhi was not without his own racial prejudice and having spent time in Africa, he did not think very highly of the Black world. So he had not really pushed ideas of nonviolence in those populations. The meeting with Thurman changed both of them significantly. Thurman was quite interested in these ideas and wanted to bring them back to the U.S. Gandhi realized such things were possible. Well, Thurman was fascinated by Gandhi’s combination of spiritualism and political resistance. So he started studying nonviolence more and began writing about it as well. This would have an enormous impact on American history.
Another of Thurman’s great concerns was the segregation of the churches. As Martin Luther King, among others, noted, no time was segregation stronger than on Sunday mornings. In many ways, that still is true today. Thurman wanted to build a church that would speak to all Americans. In 1944, he left Howard to take that shot. He moved to San Francisco, starting the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. He was co-pastor, with a white pastor named Alfred Fisk. This was the first quite explicitly integrated church in the United States. Now, the truth was that this was always a really hard thing to keep up. It was a combination of white liberals and members of the Black elite, so it’s not like it was really reaching that deep into the masses of either community. Later, the church did manage to attract a good number of the Black migrants from the South moving to the Bay Area for defense jobs, but it was slower among the white community, among whom even most of the liberals were decidedly uncomfortable being around Black folks.
Somewhat frustrated about the limitations of his vision in action, in 1953, Thurman moved to Boston to become a dean at Boston University. In this, he was the first Black dean in a majority white institution in American history. He also taught at the BU School of Theology. He remained there until his retirement in 1965. Among his students there was Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Thurman had gone to school with MLK Sr. at Morehouse. And Thurman became an enormous influence on King Jr. Thurman was a prolific writer. He wanted to bring these ideas of a new spiritualized mystical Christianity into the world. So he wrote and wrote and wrote.
In 1949, Thurman published his most famous book, Jesus and the Disinherited. This was his purest distillation of Gandhi’s ideas into the American mainstream. The book came out of a series of lectures he delivered at a college in Texas in 1948. This was a connection between the oppression Black people faced and strategies to defeat it through spiritual Christianity. The book would have offended a lot of conservative whites right off the bat because Thurman argued that one must see Jesus in the context of his times and not as a never-changing figure. That level of relativism alone would have outraged many, although to someone like me, it is common sense. He notes that Jesus was an impoverished Jew living under Roman oppression and that he was a freedom fighter. What Jesus offers the dispossessed then is a model of resistance, a path away from just accepting the hell of your life. But you had to do this without hating the enemy. Nonviolent resistance was a path forward here. This is where people such as King, James Farmer, and a lot of other leaders in the civil rights movement first became familiar with Gandhi’s ideas. Among other things, this was almost a textbook for King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, not for how to run the boycott of course, but how to frame it.
Thurman continued to serve as something of an advisor to King, though from afar, during the latter’s life. When King was nearly assassinated by a crazy woman in 1958, he was depressed. Still in the hospital, he wrote to Thurman to ask for advice on where to go from there. Thurman reinforced that he was on the right track, they continued to speak, and plan, and move forward together. It’s kind of amazing that Thurman is so little known today given his massive influence on King.
In 1965, Thurman retired from BU and returned to San Francisco. He remained involved in his church out there and ran the Howard Thurman Educational Trust. He died there in 1981, at the age of 81.
This is also a reminder that I did a podcast with Peter Eisenstadt about his biography of Thurman in 2021, so check that out for more! The book itself is also fantastic and gets into the complexity of Thurman’s life and work in a way that I can’t even touch in a short post like this.
Howard Thurman is buried at the Howard Thurman Memorial, Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia. As you can see, it is large.
If you would like this series to visit other figures from the Black intellectual tradition, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. W.E.B. DuBois is in Accra, Ghana, and you should send me there. But if you can’t do that, Martin Delaney is in Cedarville, Ohio and Harold Cruse is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.