Who Was Howard Thurman?
Who Was Howard Thurman?
Remembering Marsh Chapel’s path-breaking black dean
More than a century ago, an African American seventh grader from segregated Daytona, Fla., prepared to board a train for Jacksonville and high school. His family dropped him at the train station with the fare, but neglected to give him enough money to ship his luggage. A boy like other boys, without an adult’s self-sufficiency, he did what any stranded child might do—he sat down and cried. Then a black man, a stranger, covered the bill for him. Years later, when the boy became a man and wrote his life story, he dedicated it to the stranger who “restored my broken dream.”
With the opening January 21 of an expanded and relocated Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, his namesake BU center, Thurman (1899–1981) remains unknown to many students. His life bridged eras: born the grandson of a former slave in horse-and-buggy days, he died the year the IBM personal computer debuted. Death took Thurman (Hon.’67) long enough ago to fog the history he made. He preached a philosophy of Common Ground, which taught that humans need to seek an inner spiritual happiness that would lead them to share their experience in community with others. In 1944, Thurman cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated interfaith religious congregation in the United States. In 1953, he became the dean of Marsh Chapel, the first black dean at a mostly white American university, mentoring, among many others, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) as he developed his philosophy of nonviolence.
Yet Thurman didn’t live the dramatic public activism of King or suffer a similar martyrdom. In fact, critics called him a backbencher in the Civil Rights Movement, more preoccupied with mystical meanderings than frontline protesting. Thurman countered that the first order of social change was changing one’s individual internal spirit. “He rather gently and powerfully moved through the world in a spirit of grace, dignity, and humility,” says Walter Fluker (GRS’88), the School of Theology Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, who published Thurman’s papers, taught a seminar on the man last semester, and wrote his dissertation on Thurman and King.
Who exactly was Howard Thurman?
In an interview shortly before his death, Thurman said he caught the “contagion” of religion from his grandmother, who cared for him after his father died when Thurman was seven and his mother became the family breadwinner. His grandmother recited for Howard the mantra of the black preacher she’d heard as a child on her owner’s plantation: “You are not slaves. You are not niggers. You’re God’s children!” His grandmother’s charismatic rendition, Thurman told the interviewer, inspired in him the belief that “the creator of existence also created me.”
That belief took him to Morehouse College in Atlanta, then to seminary and a series of jobs as pastor and professor. His first pastorate after his 1925 ordination as a Baptist minister, in Ohio in the 1920s, led to study with Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones, which Thurman said changed his life. His thinking was honed by a 1935 trip to India with other African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi, who completed Thurman’s conversion to nonviolent social activism.
Thurman’s association with Martin Luther King, Jr., predated BU. Thurman and King’s father, an Atlanta minister, were friends when the young King was growing up. “Thurman was at the King home many times,” says Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), former director of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which houses King’s donated papers. Their BU time overlapped for only a year, and King considered his father and Thurman a different, older generation, Paladino says. Nonetheless, King carried Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman’s most important book, while leading the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott.
Published in 1949, the book argues that Jesus taught the oppressed a faith-based unconditional love that would enable them to endure their oppression. Thurman’s message moved not only King, but Jesse Jackson, who in 1982 penned an essay for a postmortem tribute to Thurman by BU. Jackson the activist wrote that he’d been drawn to Thurman the academic by his insistence that “if you ever developed a cultivated will with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish.”
In 1958, after King survived a near-fatal stabbing by a deranged woman in Harlem, Thurman visited him in the hospital. The Gotlieb Center King collection includes a letter King later sent Thurman, recalling that he’d asked the older man, “Where do I go from here?”
“I am following your advice on the question,” King writes. He doesn’t spell out the advice, but Thurman’s reply expresses joy “that plans are afoot in your own thinking for structuring your life in a way that will deepen its channel.” He also says he hoped to discuss with King “the fulfillment of the tasks to which our hands are set.”
Influencing King and the Civil Rights Movement is “reason alone to justify Thurman to a new generation,” says Fluker. Yet dead for almost four decades and gone from BU for more than a half century, Thurman is a ghost to a Thurman Center staff that must make him relevant for 21st-century students. Who knows, for example, how he would have felt about gay rights, only an embryonic issue in his day? Both Fluker and Thurman Center director Katherine Kennedy are unaware of any Thurman commentary on the question, although he counted gay people among his friends.
While recognizing the limits of our Thurman knowledge, Raul Fernandez (COM’00, Wheelock’16), Wheelock College of Education & Human Development associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, says it’s liberating to pursue the spirit of the man’s words without being shackled by their letter.
“We try not to bind ourselves to that,” Fernandez says, “because we understand the different circumstances that we live in today.”
Thank you for reminding us all of the legacy of Howard Thurman.
I really enjoyed this article about Thurman! /an alum in Stockholm, Sweden
In reading your article on Howard Thurman, based on his views and teaching about the human spirit and community, I believe he would not agree with the views of Raul Fernandez and the approach to the human community today through divisive terms like equity, diversity and inclusion.
We should not be defining the community we live in today by focusing on racial or gender divides but by all of us achieving internal spiritual happiness, respecting each other and making that part of our everyday life in the world.
My heart and head align with your words. Thank you, they strengthen my resolve to resist the spirit of 21st Centurty segregation based on “identity”.
I remember Howard Thurman in a Boston University School of Theology class on preaching describing the death of his follow, preparation of the body in their home. To be in Dr. Thurman’s presence that day was one of the most memorable experiences of my three years at BUST.
I recall Dean Thurmond from my years as undergraduate at BU CLA. It was new and exciting to me, a New Englander, to find such a majestic and spiritual presence at the college. Though I cannot express my admiration in monetary fashion, being retired and on low fixed income, I want you to know some graduates still remember him and have always been proud to say so.
I grew up hearing a story from my father, Rev. Dr. Echol L. Nix, Sr. about him driving Dr. Howard Thurman to the airport after Thurman preached a Vesper service at Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU), where my father was an undergraduate student. A scholarship was named after Thurman at MVSU and my father was a recipient. Dad said as Thurman was exiting the car, he thanked him for the scholarship assistance and Thurman replied, “When you are in a position to help others, pass it on.” It was an honor for me to place the ashes of Howard Thurman, handed to me in an urn by Mrs. Sue Bailey Thurman during the dedication of the new Howard Thurman Bell Tower at Morehouse College in May, 1995, as one of the graduation events organized by Dr. Lawrence E. Carter, Sr., a fellow BU alumnus.
Howard Thurman was an incredible influence in my life. My dad, dr sam hedrick, and mom spent an incredible three day weekend at his dunes cabin in Provincetown when I was in junior high school. He was the most gentle, twinkly eyed, bass voiced, and truly interesting man I ever met. There was sincerity in his every syllable and a concern for and interest in others in his every movement. My dad was at Bust at an incredible time, Martin and Corretta King were frequent visitors at our home in newton but to be honest one of the people from that period I remember most and most positively was Howard Thurman.
Howard Thurman is so relevant for today’s racial
upheavals, in the age of George Floyd, Black Lives
Matter and white awakening. As a white married
Lesbian who is 77 yrs old, participating in my Episcopal
Church’s ten week course on racism, Thurman’s
profound wisdom, searching questions, deep
theology knocks me out intellectually and brings
tears to my eyes from the “ear of my heart”.
His voice is so needed in our world, especially in
white Christian Churches, guiding us to the deep
center of the self, where each of us dwell with God
In this center all human beings can meet. Getting
There so that this self makes a difference in its
encounters with others, takes the wisdom and knowledge of
love, practiced in commitment over and over again.
I give God profound gratitude for the life of Howard
I hear Rev Michael Beckwith of Agape speak and quote Dr Thurman so often that it peaked my interest in who is this man. Then I find out he had a connection with OBERLIN Ohio. It is fascinating reading and learning about him. Amazing.
Thank you for this article! I have to write a biographical essay and I think I will describe Howard Thurman because he is an inspiring person and his leading role in social justice movements deserves respect. Moreover, he isn’t such a popular person for writing and I hope my essay will stand out from others.
With great glee of interest and knowledge of Howard Thurman’s writings I sit with him often in thought. A profound thinker, writer, lecturer, a statement of inspiration. Thank you for this profile of his gifts. Much appreciated! :-)
Thanks for sharing this post!
I’m a 70 year old woman from Texas, and I’m sorry to admit I hadn’t heard about Howard Thurman until today. I’m looking forward to reading his books, and sharing his story with others. Thank you for your introduction to this lovely soul.
This is a great article! I learned something new.
Thanks Rich! I am the youngest and only girl out of seven biological children, one legally adopted son and one elder foster brother. I am 65 years old. I have been fortunate in knowing of Dr. Thurman all my life. And, I say that because my dad and mom spoke of their journey as was age appropriate constantly. TMI
Dr. Thurman possessed the courage and tenacity to STAND without the glitz and glamour of the press, public, newspapers, etc. On 4 December 1948, Dr. Thurman set precedent when he officiated the marriage ceremony of my parents making them the first American born (meaning having generational roots in this country–she 11th gen White; he fifth gen “negro” [and not of slave roots]). My dad would attempt to clarify what being an “American” minority meant in the forties when he met my mom. Yes, there were inter-racial couples of different origins, i.e., classified white woman and “negro” men. These marriages were products of those men as soldiers during WWII marrying foreign women of European descent and bringing them to the States. My parents were the first couple in the State to marry once the law was changed (circa 1 Oct 1948). TMI if you can imagine what a journey being the offspring of these two would be like coming up in the late 50s and beyond. Also, given the community of folks at the Church for the Fellowship of All People’s at present and the fact/fate that my mom’s eldest son was one of many “firsts” here in the North Bay, very gay and vocal and same sex married; although he and his partner married in Boston because of the times. I would say, “Howard Thurman was definitely ahead of his time.” Thank God, he chose NOT to be a hero like Ghandi or King. Heroes die. Thanks again Rich! Folks may not know Dr. Thurman well right now, but “keep up the good works!” Soon, folks will pay attention…
[…] (which by no means ends) is simply starting! In that spirit, I give you this poem traced again to Howard Thurman. Amongst a wide range of interpretations on-line, this is my tackle Thurman’s phrases. […]
I recently dug out some old photos that I have had laying around and it was there that I say a photo of Dr Thurman at my grandfather’s house in the 50’s. I was reminded that my grandfather, Dr. Leroy Lewis Dunnington, a Methodist minister in Iowa City, was a good friend of Dr. Thurman’s. In fact, Dr. Therman stayed at my grandfather’s house for prolonged visits in the mid 50’s where Dr. Thurman and my grandfather would spend all day Sunday after church chopping up vegetables and talking about churchly matters, spirit, God, humans and justice for hours. Then for dinner Dr. Thurman in his very deep and loud voice would yell out “come and get it, the Gumbo is ready”. His voice boomed through the old house, so I am told in a magnetic way. Just a little story to go with the incredible man. David Dunnington
Much thanks to you for this article! I need to compose a historical free chat blog and I figure I will portray Howard Thurman because he is a motivating individual and his driving job in civil rights developments merits regard. Additionally, he isn’t a particularly well-known individual for composing and I trust my paper will stand apart from others.
Just now finding out about this most interesting man, in a 13 April 2022 posting at https://twitter.com/SecBlinken, in his remarks
“The U.S. and India have always had much to learn from one another. At @HowardU
I discussed how Howard Thurman’s pilgrimage to India and interactions with Gandhi influenced a key figure in our nation’s journey: Martin Luther King, Jr. We share a special bond indeed.”
For an on-line copy of Howard Thurman’s 1949 book titled “Jesus and the Disinherited”, it is available at the following URL
A most excellent read and so glad I now know of Howard’s life
Great article on returning to our own personal and life missions back to our authenticity when our life has been turned upside down or thwarted by obstacles from others, or the planks in our own eyes which we share with others and need to be understood as necessary life experiences for us all to know and better understand the human condition with.