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Race & Equity

40 years after his death, iconic theologian still influences nonviolent protests

Howard Thurman
Boston Public Library
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Howard Thurman (left) receiving his degree for Doctor of Divinity at Boston University commencement, 1967,

There’s been a resurgence in the writings and teachings of theologian and educator Dr. Howard Thurman. Thurman, who died 40 years ago, was also an early environmentalist and had a major influence on the approach of non-violence many Black leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., advocated during the civil rights movement.

The renewed interest in Thurman’s philosophy regarding nonviolence and his call for protection of the oppressed, comes as the country has become more divided along racial lines, protests have increased, and the Black Lives Matter movement has grown.

Dr. Mary Wade is the country’s first African American to receive a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution. She wrote her dissertation on Thurman and teaches classes online on his principles. She says Thurman’s beliefs in unity and nonviolence go back to a meeting he had in India with his grandmother and Mahatma Gandhi. Wade joined "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk more about Thurman.

Wade: Well, his grandmother taught him to challenge, to be careful about who and what he followed. His grandmother taught him the value of nonviolence. His grandmother told him, nobody ever wins a fight. And so Howard Thurman grew up recognizing that he came from a community of the dispossessed and yet felt that he had a responsibility.

Dr. Mary Wade
Courtesy of Dr. Mary Wade
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Dr. Mary Wade

Glenn: What year was it that he met with Gandhi?

Wade: 1935, I believe. Then the civil rights leaders met with Gandhi as a result of the contact that Thurman had made with Gandhi. And in his meeting with Gandhi, he came out of India with an understanding that we are all in this together. He used to frame shoulder to shoulder with each other in terms of the way we view each other. There's is none any higher and there's none any lower.

Glenn: For someone who grew up in a very segregated society, everything was separate. That was a big thing for him in his life.

Wade: It was major for him and for the others in the movement. The other theologians... he was challenged, for continuously speaking to the importance of being in unity with these other faiths and other religions.

Glenn: Thurman went on to... Life magazine called him one of the top ministers in the country, and he influenced so many people in the civil rights movement. Tell me about that.

Wade: I cannot even imagine the nonviolent position that we took in civil rights, were it not for Howard. Thurman. King was a junior when Thurman left Boston University.

Glenn: King was a student and Thurman was a professor there.

Wade: Yes, and he was the dean of the chapel, the first African American to hold such a position at a white institution. For one year, King came in under him as a student, and he did mentor King. Although Thurman says all he did was invite him over to listen to basketball, football and, you know, feed him. But he influenced his life greatly. He introduced the nonviolence to all, you think of James Farmer, you think of the many civil rights leaders, Joseph Lowery. In fact, I can't think of any one of them who came up in the late 40s, 50s, 60s who were not influenced by Thurman. You know, Barack Obama understood that he stood on the shoulders of King, but King stood on the shoulders of Thurman. During the civil rights march, the 1963 march, King contacted Thurman for advice as to how to go about this march. But Thurman tried to stay in the background of the civil rights movement.

Glenn: Why is that?

Wade: He wanted the attention to be on the issues, on the people who he felt were actually doing the on-the-ground work. He wanted to be considered primarily as a spiritual leader and an educator.

Glenn: What would you say were some of the major influences he had on Dr. King and he had on so many others?

Wade: If you read the book "Jesus and the Disinherited," he made an interpretation as to the rightness of their cause. And in the book" Jesus and the Disinherited," which was written in 1949, Thurman laid out the issues of the dispossessed and why we should be interested in those who he said he defined as whose backs were against the wall. And so he gave the interpretation of what it means to have your back against the wall. And if you're a civil rights leader and you're struggling with how to address this issue, how to articulate this issue, he gave a clear articulation and then he gave a methodology as to how they should move forward. How they should conduct themselves individually. He was telling the church, look, you have a responsibility that's granted to you, not by man, but by God. And it is your responsibility. Therefore, to have the courage to move forward and take the actions that are necessary to free the dispossessed. Those are whose backs are against the wall.

Glenn: And a lot of people said he was the moral compass for the civil rights movement. Would you agree with that?

Wade: He was the moral compass, and being a moral compass is not easy because the majority of the people do not want to hear what you have to say, which is why you had so much difficulties with many of the churches who didn't even want him to speak. But the leaders of the civil rights movement realized that they had in front of them a man of God who was speaking clearly to the issues of the day.

Glenn: And you said he laid out the issues. What specifically were those issues he laid out for them?

Wade: Thurman, in his analysis of the Constitution, was able to show the relationship between the Constitution, the rights of all people, the right to have a decent living, to have access to education without having to fight for it. The right to food, basic human needs.

Glenn: I read where Dr. King also carried one of his books around, and I think it was the one you mentioned the "Jesus and the Disinherited."

Wade: He said he always had it in his pocket, you know, because the book speaks to the basic rights of human beings. In the book "Jesus and the Disinherited," Thurman spoke of three things that I wish we could remember today. Thurman said that those of us who are dispossessed, we had to be careful not to succumb to fear, to hatred and to deception.

Glenn: How do you think, Thurman and what he taught plays today, and how relevant is his kind of philosophy to what's going on in the world today?

Wade: I think it's very relevant. You look at the Black Lives Matter, that's not just a Black people's movement. That's an idea that Black and white and people of all races, the nonviolent approach that they are taking stems from Thurman's introduction of nonviolence into the African American community and to American society as a whole. Thurman would say, keep your eyes on the prize

Glenn: You're seeing like this resurgence of people looking at Thurman's teachings again? What do you think is behind the resurgence?

Wade: People are looking for answers, critical analysis of what we are going through today. Many of us are just tired of the hatred of the name-calling and weariness with the ugliness. Thurman didn't believe in any of that, and I believe that more and more people, that's why you're hearing more about Thurman or growing to an understanding that we don't have to live this way. That's the fullness of it. Yeah.

Glenn Dr. Mary Wade is the founder of Building Respect and Community and teaches courses on Dr. Howard Thurman's principles with a retreat on Thurman planned for South Carolina early next year.

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