Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman (1900-1981), born in Daytona, FL, was raised by his grandmother who had been enslaved in the Deep South. At a time when black children rarely attended public school, Thurman graduated the seventh grade, the highest grade available in his home town. He left home to continue school in Jacksonville, FL, however, at the Daytona Beach train station he found himself with too little money to board the Jacksonville train with his trunk. Sitting on the steps, penniless and in tears, he was approached by a stranger, a black man in overalls, who, without giving his name, paid the boy’s fare. Thurman later dedicated his autobiography to “the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago”.
Thurman graduated Morehouse College in 1923 and Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in 1925. He was ordained as a Baptist Minister and assumed his first pastorate in 1926, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. In Oberlin he encountered the work of Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist Interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. Thurman studied with Jones at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and described this time as a watershed event in his life.
In 1928 Thurman left Mt Zion to serve as director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelmann Colleges. In 1932 he became Dean of Rankin Chapel and Professor of Theology at Howard University. In 1935-36, Thurman led an American delegation to to the International Student Conference in India. He traveled throughout India, lecturing at more than 40 universities. It was during this trip that Dr.Thurman met and began an historic dialogue with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi challenged Thurman with the idea that Christianity was being used by whites to keep people of color under subjugation. Hinduism offered the fundamental principle of non-violent opposition as a way to overcome British oppression. Did Christianity offer any similar liberating power to African Americans?
As Jesus (a Jew in Roman occupied Palestine) was himself part of an oppressed minority and denied basic rights, Dr Thurman felt and knew that the entire ministry of Jesus was realized through Jesus’ experience as a member of a community” who live daily with their backs against the wall”. Dr Thurman’s instincts in this regard came to full fruition in his seminal text,”Jesus and the Disinherited”, a text Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. continually returned to for an understanding and grounding in Christian non-violent opposition.
In 1944 Dr Thurman left Howard University to join Reverend Alfred Fisk in the task of creating the first fully integrated house of worship in the United States, The Fellowship Church of All Peoples. Fellowship Church was founded in the Japanese district of San Francisco. At a time when Japanese Americans were being sent to prison camps in America merely because of their ethnic background, Fellowship Church intentionally brought together blacks, Asians, Hispanics and whites into one congregation. At this time Thurman told his congregation, “Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that can be released through you.”
In 1953 Dr Thurman took a leave of absence from Fellowship Church to become Dean of Marsh Chapel and Professor of Spiritual Discipline and Resources at Boston University. An immensely popular professor andlecturer, Dr Thurman became a mentor to many, including the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Ebony Magazine referred to Dr Thurman as a”20th Century Saint”. and Life magazine hailed him as one of the 12 outstanding preachers in the United States. During this time he preached at more than 200 American and Canadian institutions and was visiting professor and lecturer at dozens of schools. Dr Thurman received honorary doctorates from eleven colleges and universities. Dr. Thurman returned to his home town of Daytona Beach to speak at Bethune-Cookman College, and the whole town celebrated “Howard Thurman Day”, where as a child he could not enter certain parts of the city without authorization from a white man.
A prolific author, Dr Thurman wrote many books of essays, poetry and theology, including “Deep is the Hunger”, “The Growing Edge”, and “The Centering Moment” (a complete bibliography is available on this website). Dr. Thurman’s call to listen for the “sound of the genuine” in ourselves and others reflected his awareness that our direct experience of each other is more compelling than any preconceived notions or prejudice we may harbor.
In 1965 Dr Thurman retired from Boston University and returned to San Francisco and Fellowship Church. He also became Director of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, which funded educational, literary, religious and charitable projects. Dr. Thurman died in San Francisco on April 10, 1981, at the age of 81