(RNS) — We recently recalled the life and influence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as we commemorated the 50th anniversary of his tragic death.
But one aspect that hasn’t gotten as much attention is how the great civil rights leader, who had no background in political activism, was influenced by those who went before him.
As social ethicist Gary Dorrien wrote in Commonweal magazine, King drew on “a tradition of black social-gospel leaders who tried to abolish Jim Crow and the mania of racial lynching, refuted the racist culture that demeaned their human dignity, and formed a succession of protest organizations.”
One of King’s lesser-known yet influential mentors was Howard Thurman, whom King encountered more deeply while a doctoral student at Boston University, where Thurman served as a faculty member and dean of the Marsh Chapel.
In 1953, Life magazine called Thurman one of the 12 “Great Preachers” of the 20th century. His political philosophy was not as visible as some of King’s other social gospel mentors’, such as Benjamin Mays and Mordecai Johnson. But Thurman’s encouragement to anchor political struggle in Christian spirituality, meditation and prayer had a profound impact on King.
Born in 1899 in segregated Daytona Beach, Fla., Thurman was influenced spiritually by his grandmother, a former slave, who grounded him in a deep sense of God’s abiding love. With only three public high schools available for black children in the state, he made his way to Florida Baptist Academy of Jacksonville and then to Morehouse College, where he graduated in 1923. He followed that by going to Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) in Rochester, N.Y.
Over the next several decades, Thurman’s work took him across the country, lecturing and preaching widely, and serving as director of religious life at Morehouse College, dean of Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel at Howard University, co-founder and co-pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco and professor and dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Thurman wrote 21 books, including his 1949 work “Jesus and the Disinherited,” which King reportedly carried with him during his civil rights protests.
Thurman also traveled globally. In 1935, he led the Student Christian Movement Pilgrimage of Friendship, the first African-American delegation to Asia. The central question Thurman was asked in India was, “Is Christianity powerless before the color bar?” When Thurman met Gandhi, he too pressed him, wondering aloud why African-Americans did not readily convert to Islam, since in Gandhi’s words, “The Muslim religion is the only religion in the world in which no lines are drawn from within the religious fellowship. Once you are in, you are all the way in.”
The questions posed in India were the same questions Thurman would wrestle with theologically and pragmatically throughout his life. How does the “religion of Jesus” apply to those “whose backs are against the wall”? In “Jesus and the Disinherited,” Thurman mused, “I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall. … The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the disposed. What does our religion say to them?”
Although stymied by his experience of racial injustice in America, Thurman argued that because “the religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central” it could engage in decisive battle against the three “hounds of hell” — fear, deception and hate — by honoring the human dignity of all people.
The power of Jesus to help those reclaim their human dignity was salient in his decision to co-pastor the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first interdenominational and interracial church in the United States. In his San Francisco church, Thurman put to the test his belief that worship could serve as the most humanizing experience of all, taking “priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like.”
On April 4, 1968, the day of King’s assassination, Thurman eulogized him on KSFO radio in San Francisco and offered the following: “Always he spoke from within the context of his religious experience, giving voice to an ethical insight which sprang out of his profound brooding over the meaning of his Judeo-Christian heritage.” In King, Thurman continued, “organized religion as we know it in our society found itself with its back against the wall. To condemn him, to reject him, was to reject the ethical insight of the faith it proclaimed.”
Reflecting on his departed friend, Thurman once again found himself wrestling with the lifelong question: How does the religion of Jesus overcome deception, hatred and fear? Rather than retreating in despair, Thurman, who died in 1981, turned this question into his lifelong quest to reanimate the person of Jesus as the path to the core ethical values that lead to justice, community and reconciliation.
(John Terrill is executive director of Upper House, a Christian study center in Madison, Wis., that is hosting a conference on Howard Thurman on April 26-27. Terrill also serves on the Board of Managers of Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of RNS.)