It was by chance that my husband, mother-in-law and I ended up visiting Howard Thurman’s childhood home in 2019. We were on the plane to Florida when I remembered Thurman, a male often called the spiritual mentor of the civil society human rights movement, grew up in Daytona Beach. He spent his childhood by the ocean, watching storms come, going to separate schools, going to church, doing odd jobs, and confiding in the oak tree in his backyard.
Today Daytona is a city where cars run on sandy beaches, a racetrack can accommodate over 100,000 people, and Trump flags still fly everywhere. It is still quite compartmentalized. Thurman’s house, hidden away in a predominantly black residential neighborhood, is one of those small museums that operate on a shoestring. We made an appointment for a visit.
I had first met Thurman a decade earlier, when a colleague told me he was listening to a multi-disc set of Thurman’s speeches and sermons (The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman) when driving off-road. Even that brief mention of Thurman sparked overwhelming interest and curiosity in me, so I bought the set myself and started listening to it. It was fascinating. A few songs that I have listened to over and over again over the years. I started to read more of Thurman’s books and to cite him in my own work. His words and voice were unlike anything I had ever heard – and yet they were somehow so familiar to me. I shared a sentiment about Thurman that Parker Palmer describes in Anchored in the flow, the feeling that “I knew him well, and he knew me”.
Many of us probably feel the same way about Thurman. But to continue to learn from a spiritual hero, we must also learn from what others have known, noticed and loved about him – academics, colleagues, friends, students, family members and even. members of Thurman’s fandom. These two books invite us to do just that.
Anchored in the flow is a collection of essays and poems by 17 writers testifying to the influence of Thurman’s work and writings on their lives and work. Publisher Gregory Ellison organizes the book around four thematic sections: vocation, education, activism and spirituality. While a few of the contributors spend more paragraphs describing their own work and experiences than their connection to Thurman, most strongly share his legacy and the works that touched them most.
Luke Powery writes of Thurman’s poem “The Growing Edge”, exploring how his drawing of the line between life and death speaks of his work and worship as a parish priest. Shively Smith writes her essay, “Thurman-eutics,” based on Thurman’s metaphor of a clothesline as a picture of a spiritual life, where “feelings, thoughts, and desires” can all be pinned down. beside. Palmer focuses on Thurman’s phrase “the sound of the authentic,” taken from a 1980 opening speech at Spelman College, and reflects on both Thurman’s understanding and his own understanding of discernment and discernment. of the real self.
The exciting group of writers represented in this collection initially gathered for a retreat in the former home of author Alex Haley, now a center owned by the Children’s Defense Fund. They are dedicated writers of different races and different professions. They range from nationally renowned ones, like Marian Wright Edelman and Barbara Brown Taylor, to scholars who collected and published the early papers by Thurman, Walter Earl Fluker and Luther E. Smith, to those who shared Thurman’s work through other media, Liza Rankow. (who produced this CD set that I have listened to so many times) and filmmaker Martin Doblmeier (who produced and directed an excellent 2019 documentary on Thurman). Other contributors include a poet, a meditation teacher, the creator of a startup “accelerator” and a church planter.
There are some awkward moments. The words anchor and anchor are often (but not always) in all caps, which I found confusing and distracting. The essays of two famous white writers are presented before all the others, which could be mistaken for an indication of their greater importance.
Either way, anyone looking to join a swarm of witnesses testifying to the power of Thurman’s writings and ideas across the church, academy, the arts, activist movements and beyond will find good company. in Ellison’s Heartfelt Collection.
Paul Harvey, a historian at the University of Colorado specializing in Southern religious history, wrote a new biography: Howard Thurman and the Underprivileged. I must admit here that I have a deep and personal affection for Thurman’s autobiography, With head and heart. I hear his warm, moving voice loud and clear in this book, the same voice I hear in his recordings. So I don’t quite understand the reviews Harvey tells us this book received when it was published. Harvey echoes these concerns, writing that Thurman “did not fully reveal himself” and that “the autobiography leaves one with a certain gap” (this at the end of the emotion, naked in the 1970s).
I find Thurman’s autobiography full of touching and humorous personal anecdotes, candid accounts of painful encounters with racism, and many side comments. He is not a denominational writer; he does not trace the contours of his emotional life nor does he relate every pain of childhood to adult behavior. She was a person from another era, where the sharing just wasn’t done. And as a black man, perhaps he kept his inner life as a sacred place where he could be free and safe, a place that the American public was not privileged to access. Yet his autobiography is the reason, besides his recordings, that I feel like I have met and known Howard Thurman and somehow he knows me.
Either way, Harvey offers us a broader view of Thurman’s life than Thurman could have done himself, in accessible language but with clearly meticulous scholarship and a sense of importance and meaning. Thurman’s ideas, travels, connections and influence. Harvey provides a thoughtful distance and perspective, with information gleaned from historical and personal articles and interviews, including plenty of anecdotes and details that Thurman himself might not have been comfortable with or aware of. able to share.
Harvey shares lucid eyes on Thurman’s mistakes and weaknesses: his precocious neglect of his first wife and daughter, his near constant work and commuting (often to exhaustion), his stubborn resistance to expectations and directorate of directors at Howard University. and Boston University, its often perilous financial difficulties and its interference in the life and management of the Fellowship Church after his departure as senior pastor. Harvey also notes that this magazine published one of the most in-depth treatments in the history and organization of Fellowship Church in 1951, in an article by Harold Fey, who would become editor of the 1956 Century. to 1964.
Although I have a great affection for Thurman’s autobiography, I would recommend Harvey’s biography to anyone looking to learn more about Thurman’s life and influence as easily and quickly. Howard Thurman and the Underprivileged leaves readers with a full appreciation of the influence and talent of this civil rights preacher, mystic, writer, pastor and mentor. Thurman’s autobiography is more humble, at times rambling, and perhaps best read by those who want to hear his story in his own voice. For those who wish to delve into some of Thurman’s writings beyond the autobiography, there is a huge choice. Jesus and the underprivileged is the most famous and influential, but one of his favorites was The inner journey.
There is something about Howard Thurman, even 40 years after his death, that makes many people want to feel that we too are spending a few hours with him in his office or sitting and listening to him preach. These two books invite us to do this and more. They help us see Thurman in a larger historical and theological context, nationally and internationally, and as a gentle but powerful cornerstone in the spiritual foundations of the civil rights movement, especially its practice of non-violence.
Our visit to Thurman’s childhood home in Daytona Beach stayed with me. He felt close in these few pieces of furniture, some family photographs and a playful collection of penguin figurines (his favorite animal). But I felt like Thurman was standing right next to me when Qasim, our guide, pointed out to me the oak tree Thurman had loved as a child, still alive and towering above my head in the courtyard. I stood under that oak, stunned, remembering the words Thurman had written in With head and heart: “I needed the strength of this tree and, like it, I wanted to hold on. . . . I could speak aloud to the oak tree and know that I was understood. Just like this tree and this house, still standing and welcoming visitors, the life and work of Thurman continues to stand out, to welcome and to inspire.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Drawing near Thurman.”