Howard Thurman (Nov. 18, 1899, Daytona Beach, FL – Apr. 10, 1981, San Francisco, CA) was an American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, preacher, and civil rights leader. As a prominent and inspirational religious figure, he played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the 20th century.
Dr. Thurman was raised by his grandmother, who was formerly enslaved. She gave him ‘the contagion of Christianity’ and backing, and set him on a path of influence from coast to coast and around the world.
Howard Thurman was a visionary. His theological beliefs of radical nonviolence influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, and he was a key mentor to leaders within the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. See YouTube video below.
Much of what Howard Thurman taught, we still need to learn and implement today.
Thurman served as dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University from 1932 to 1944 and as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. In 1944, he help found, the first major interracial, interdenominational church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco.
Dr. Howard Thurman wrote many books, sermons, and articles. In his influential book, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), Thurman interprets the teachings of Jesus through the experience of the oppressed and discusses nonviolent responses to oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. studied Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited during the Montgomery bus boycott.
Dr. Thurman’s “philosophy of self-exploration and community building through meaningful and creative shared experiences” continues at the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground at Boston University.
Upon the Deaths of JFK and MLK
Being born in 1899 and dying in 1981 he both predated and out-lived President John F. Kennedy (assassinated November 22, 1963) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (assassinated April 4, 1968). Upon their deaths, Howard Thurman had insightful words on these leaders of the 1960’s, sharing both sadness and words of hope. Words that are good for us to hear today.
- Eulogy to the late President John F. Kennedy (transcript) My reading of the eulogy.
- Speech on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death
(video of reading by Walter Fluker)
More Information on Howard Thurman
Much more can be said about this man, including the universities where he served, that he was valedictorian (1923) of Morehouse College, that he went to India and met Mahatma Gandhi, and that he once was a visiting lecturer at the University of Ibandan, in Nigeria.
- Wonderful video interview from shortly before his death. He discusses the relationship between religious experience and the mind and the influence of his grandmother.
- Boston University and here – Who was Howard Thurman? and Howard Thurman Papers Project
- YouTube video. Overview of this influential human.
- Thurman documents. Nice collection at the Boston University School of Theology.
- Howard Thurman Crown Forum 2020 (video) Assembly at Morehouse College in November 2020.
- PBS This Far by Faith – People of Faith page with life story of Howard Thurman.