During his tenure as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, theologian and minister Howard Thurman sent Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King his 1955 volume on spirituals, Deep River. He inscribed the book: “To the Kings—The test of life is often found in the amount of pain we can absorb without spoiling our joy” (Papers 6:229). Thurman’s commitment to a spiritually and physically integrated society, and to the methods of Gandhian nonviolence, served as major influences in King’s life.
Born in Daytona, Florida, Thurman attended Morehouse College, earning a BA in 1923. After receiving his BD from Rochester Theological Seminary (1926), he did further graduate work at the Oberlin School of Theology and at Haverford College, where he studied under Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones. He returned to Morehouse in 1929, as a philosophy and religion professor. In 1932 he married Sue Bailey, a contemporary of King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, when both women attended Spelman College. The couple relocated to Washington, D.C., when Thurman joined Howard University’s faculty. Three years later, he became dean of Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel, a position he held until 1943.
In 1935 the Thurmans traveled with Reverend Edward and Phenola Carroll on a “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to Burma, Ceylon, and India at the invitation of the Student Christian Movements of the United States of America and India. The delegation met with Mohandas K. Gandhi in February 1936, and discussed the status and history of African Americans and questions of nonviolence. Upon their return to the United States, the Thurmans toured and spoke of their experiences with Gandhi.
In 1943 Thurman resigned his position at Howard to help found an integrated church in San Francisco. The doors of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples opened for the first time in October 1944, for an inaugural multi-faith service with Thurman and white clergyman Alfred G. Fisk as co-pastors. Thurman remained there as minister until 1953, when he accepted the post of dean of Marsh Chapel and professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources at Boston University. According to Thurman, he and King met “informally” during King’s last years as a doctoral student: “We watched the World Series on television at our house. Sue and Martin discussed very seriously the possibility of his coming to Fellowship Church; it was then she discovered his commitment to Montgomery” (Thurman, 254). In a 1955 letter written less than a month before the Montgomery bus boycott, Thurman communicated his regret that he would not be able to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church’s Men’s Day Service and passed on “special greetings” from his wife (Papers 2:588). During the bus boycott, King’s friend and biographer, Lerone Bennett, reported that King “read or reread” Thurman’s 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited, which interprets Jesus’ teachings through the experience of the oppressed and the need for a nonviolent response to such oppression (Bennett, 74).
According to Thurman’s autobiography, the only time that he and King were able to arrange a “serious talk” came in the fall of 1958, when King was recovering in New York after being stabbed by Izola Curry at a book signing (Thurman, 254). The day before their meeting, Thurman recalled having a “vibrant sensation” in which “Martin emerged in my awareness and would not leave” (Thurman, 255). When he met alone with King the following day, he asked how long King’s doctor had given him for his convalescence.
When he told me, I urged him to ask them to extend the period by an additional two weeks. This would give him time away from the immediate pressure of the movement to reassess himself in relation to the cause, to rest his body and mind with healing detachment, and to take a long look that only solitary brooding can provide. The movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own to which he must relate in fresh and extraordinary ways or be swallowed up by it (Thurman, 255).
Thurman retired from Boston University in 1965. He directed the Howard Thurman Educational Trust until his death in 1981.
Bennett, Jr., What Manner of Man, 1968.
Kapur, Raising Up a Prophet, 1992.
King to Thurman, 31 October 1955, in Papers 2:583–584.
Thurman, Inscription to King in Deep River, 1955, in Papers 6:229.
Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949.
Thurman, With Head and Heart, 1979.
Thurman to King, 14 November 1955, in Papers 2:588.