Howard Thurman: A Bridge Between Movements

This post is part of our forum on Howard Thurman and the Civil Rights Movement.

Standing in front of the microphone during ceremonies of the opening of the Hearst Lounge at Boston University are Robert Choate, Dean of the School of Fine Arts; Dean Howard Thurman of Marsh Chapel; President Harold Case, President of B.U.; and Harold G. Kern of the Hearst Corp, 1959 (Boston Public Library)

In 1897, a group of scholars and clergymen met at Lincoln Temple Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., for the first gathering of the American Negro Academy (ANA). The ANA was situated within an emerging tradition that is now referred to as the “Black social gospel”—a movement that sought to “affirm the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of Black people.” It would be roughly fifty years between its first and second waves, and in that time W.E.B. Du Bois—a founding member of the ANA—worked to refute the common refrain that Reconstruction “failed” due to Black leadership. Rather, as he argues in Black Reconstruction, it was abandoned.

For the reform first imagined during Reconstruction to be actualized, imaginative organizations were needed. One institution with imaginative potential, but with which Du Bois had long wrestled, was the Black church. Du Bois recognized the Black church as the only institution fully owned by Black people, so it was the central hub for social movements in the Black community. But he was critical of the Black church. Du Bois was vehemently opposed to any form of religion that did not improve the condition of Black Americans, and he recognized Black churches as entities that sometimes hindered Black advancement. Yet, as we see in his involvement with the ANA—founded by Episcopalian priest Alexander Crummell with Presbyterian minister Francis J. Grimke among its founding officers—Du Bois was influential among and interactive with many Black clergymen during his time. His vision for Christianity was not dissimilar from theirs. For Du Bois, a Christianity that did not improve the quality of life for marginalized members of society was no Christianity at all.

In many respects, the rise of organizations birthed out of the Black church during the second wave of the Black social gospel—the mid-nineteenth century movement referred to as the Black Freedom Struggle—constituted a critical mass of imaginative organizations that could continue Reconstruction-era efforts. During this time, Black churches again served as a communal hub. As historian Paul Harvey writes, one cannot discuss the Black Freedom Struggle without positioning the institution of the Black Church in the foreground, and acknowledging it as the force that drove the movement. Many Black church figures, however, have been overlooked in historical retellings of the Black freedom struggle. One of these figures is Howard Thurman, who, until the last decade or so, was largely unheard of in popular discussions. While he himself was reluctant to be the center of attention, Thurman is deserving of our recognition as a central figure in the story of the Black Freedom Struggle.

When his life and work are placed in the spotlight, Thurman shines as a sage to the leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle, and as a bridge between the first and second waves of the Black social gospel.

Central to the Black social gospel is the belief that Jesus Christ understands the sufferings of Black people and he is the source of their spiritual and material freedom. Before the beginning of the second wave of the Black social gospel, there was arguably no one person who understood this freedom better than the pastor-theologian Howard Thurman. Much like Du Bois, Thurman recognized that Christianity—in its true form—had something to offer Black people. The same year Du Bois published Black Reconstruction, 1935, Thurman gave a lecture entitled “Good News for the Underprivileged,” where he laid the foundation for what would become a decades-long inquiry into the life and message of Jesus and the “disinherited,” which is how he referred to underprivileged people. Thurman argued that in the face of oppressive social forces, the religion of Jesus assures the marginalized that their ultimate identity is in their status as children of God. When one is assured of this identity, Thurman wrote, fear of oppression is emptied of its substance. Belief in Jesus, then, becomes the ground on which Black people can stand—knowing the sum of their experience is not suffering, and that union with God generates a love ethic that transcends oppression.

The “religion of Jesus” inspired Thurman to respond to the oppression he witnessed, including the anti-colonial movements in India. As early as the 1920s, the Indian independence movement was being discussed among Black leaders and in Black newspapers across the country. Mahatma Gandhi’s role, in particular, sparked discussion of the “Gandhi question,” that is, who would be the Gandhi of Black America? For many, the ideal figure to assume the mantle of Black America’s Gandhi was Howard Thurman. In him, they saw a figure Black Americans could rally around. Thurman, however—in perhaps the most emblematic act of his storied life and to the bewilderment of his peers—rejected the idea.

Amidst the discussion of the Gandhi question, Thurman met with Mahatma Gandhi a few months after giving his lecture on the underprivileged. In the Autumn of 1935, he traveled to India “to study religion from the point of view of the needs of underprivileged peoples.” While Thurman did not take an active role in leading the second wave of the Black social gospel, his teachings after this meeting with Gandhi informed Black America’s philosophy of non-violent direct action. Upon returning to the United States, and over the next thirteen years, Thurman pondered the content of his “good news” lecture and his visit with Gandhi. Ultimately, these musings became the core of his book Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949. Civil rights leader and reverend Jesse Jackson has recounted that along with the Bible, numerous leaders of the movement—including himself and Dr. King—would carry with them Thurman’s book as they participated in marches and protests. In Ebony, Otis Moss, Jr. captured the significance of Thurman’s teachings for the movement:

It might be that he did not join the march from Selma to Montgomery, or many of the other marches, but he has participated at the level that shapes the philosophy that creates the march—and without that people don’t know what to do before they march, while they march or after they march.

In Thurman, leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle found a mentor and teacher who provided them with spiritual and philosophical guidance. Thurman’s lasting legacy, then, is not that of a movement leader as many desired, but of a movement sage who gave Black people a lens through which they could look and see the relevance of Jesus’ life for their own. Thurman rarely spoke on the Gandhi question, but in an interview with Lerone Bennett, Jr. in 1978, he opened up about his rejection of the mantle. “I am not a movement man,” Thurman admitted. “It’s not my way. I work at giving witness in the external aspect of my life to my experience of the truth. That’s my way.”

Howard Thurman’s ultimate belief was in the transformative power of the religion of Jesus—of union with God, and the necessity of living out such transformation in intimate community with fellow human beings. Thurman echoed this sentiment in Meditations of the Heart when he writes that “the pragmatic test of one’s unity with the Spirit is found in the unity with one’s fellows.” For Thurman, this pragmatic test was not only relevant for a society that oppressed Black people, it was also relevant for a Protestant Church that had largely failed to undertake a radical effort to transform their imaginations with respect to racial unity. Elsewhere in Footprints of a Dream, Thurman elaborates on this pragmatic test. He writes that encountering the spirit of God inspires individuals to “act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.”

Howard Thurman is a rare case of a figure whose life exemplified action and anticipation. He was one of the few who anticipated a spirit in the making—one which would, in part, come to define the contemporary Protestant church in America—the multiracial church.

Thurman embarked on a journey to embody the religion of Jesus his way by co-founding The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in 1944 as “the nations first interracial interfaith congregation.” Perhaps his most notable offering, however, came in his action against the oppressive spirit of his time. Thurman’s reclamation of Jesus’ Jewish identity and his understanding of Jesus’ oppressed experience became a model for disinherited Black folks in their fight against Jim Crow. While peers and publications were calling for Thurman to assume the mantle of Black America’s Gandhi, Thurman’s rejection of that mantle speaks to the depth of his belief in the transformative power of the religion of Jesus. With this rejection, Thurman proclaimed in his own way that Black folks already had what they needed. Black America didn’t need a Black Gandhi, they already had Jesus. They simply needed to reclaim him as the God who is on the side of the oppressed.

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Tryce D. Prince

Tryce D. Prince is Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is the co-author of 'Religion and Race: A Double Edged Sword,' which appears in the textbook Religion Matters: How Sociology Helps Us Understand Religion in Our World. In addition to his studies, Tryce has served as a research assistant and consultant for the Black Midwest Initiative at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, and the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies & Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University. Previously, Tryce has written about Howard Thurman for The Front Porch. You can follow him on social media @tryceprince.

Comments on “Howard Thurman: A Bridge Between Movements

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    Thank you for this stirring reminder of Thurman’s meanings and ministries. As an adherent of liberation theology, I appreciate you highlighting the ways Thurman anticipates so many of the vital, radical movements that reform and re-form the Christian relationship to Jesus in the 20th century. If only we choose to hear!

    • Avatar

      I’m Tryce Prince. Great Aunt. Tryce has made my eyes open a black society gospel which I really never understood exactly what Howard Thurman did for the Black Civil through Movements for his own race of people.
      Tryce really through to light for me.
      I’m so very proud of my nephew and his accomplishments. Tryce is fighting for justice for all. Thank you Tryce well done.

  • Avatar

    In Tryce’s give those who eyes Soul see, and trustingly those who are, were not at the door,of the Prophetic travel, works deeds and writing of , Howard Washington Thurman.
    My salute to this important, introducing, Howard Thurman, to this generation and reminding those of the, “2 wave” Social Gospel, that few human have come out of the , USA and Confederate States in this Republic, with the so-called underprivileged atmosphere as this Soul’ , connecting the people of the oppress, nationally, globally, with Jesus.
    Thurman’s GrandMother Ambrose, invited him to Jesus’ writing, deeds, practices, including, being a carpenter, that his focus is on Him, as Thurman wrote, practice,” the disinherited don’t need Ghandi, they have Jesus.
    In my close, we, i knew , learned of Thurman’s
    principles, practices, in 1976, through , Dean Evan Edgar Crawford, Rankin Chapel, Howard University.
    Lastly, in November 1979, at the 56th Convocation of the School of Religion, Dr. Lucious Gandy, presided.
    Howard Thurman, was the Convocation Preacher, and his Autobiography, “With Head And Heart”, was released at Founder’s Library,
    Again, Tryce Prince, Great Aunt, i am encouraged and enlarged by your article on, Thurman, “20th Century Holy Man.”
    p.s. may the help meet, works, Sue, Bailey Thurman be forever noted by , Thurman’’s
    students, disciples.
    Oduno. A . ALFWoods Tarik, Beaumont, Texas

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