Speaking of Change: How a Campus Lecture Series Honoring Howard Thurman, a Spiritual Mentor of the Civil Rights Movement, Transforms Students and Faculty-And Local Neighborhoods

By Williamson, Ronald | Sojourners Magazine, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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Speaking of Change: How a Campus Lecture Series Honoring Howard Thurman, a Spiritual Mentor of the Civil Rights Movement, Transforms Students and Faculty-And Local Neighborhoods


Williamson, Ronald, Sojourners Magazine


IT MIGHT SEEM UNLIKELY that a social justice program would flourish at a predominately white school in a region where racial divides are as common as Confederate battle flags. But extraordinary changes have occurred at Stetson University since the revolutionary thoughts of a black minister began to be implemented on campus and in the surrounding town of DeLand, Florida. For more than a decade, a steady stream of poets, historians, business leaders, musicians, and significant figures from the civil rights era has flowed through Stetson's campus as part of the Howard Thurman Program. In front of students, faculty, and townsfolk, speakers recount their days as freedom riders and their participation in boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. Others speak of slum colonialism in the 21st century, the right for quality health care for minorities, as well as for decent housing and cultural freedoms. Still others have forged laws in Congress, negotiated prisoner releases in the Middle East, and helped South African refugees get an education. All challenge their audiences to seek solutions to issues of poverty, racism, justice, and social change. The speakers come to this 126-year-old university because of the life and work of Howard Thurman, a theologian, professor, author, and mentor who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and many other African-American leaders in the mid-20th century as they founded and participated in the civil rights movement. Thurman is often considered the spiritual architect of this social revolution that forever changed lives in the United States.

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Born in 1900, Thurman grew up in a segregated society, but the values instilled in him as lie read the Bible to his grandmother, a former slave, led him beyond the restrictions of race to a possible world of right and justice. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, was ordained, and became a professor of Christian theology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1944, he helped found the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the nation's first interracial, interdenominational church.

In 1953 Thurman became the first black chaplain of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and Life magazine named him one of the 12 greatest preachers of the 20th century. His best-known of some 20 books, Jesus and the Disinherited, was published in 1949 and outlined a philosophy of nonviolence that was embraced by the modern civil rights movement as it swelled to topple an unjust system.

In 1981, the year Thurman died, one of his disciples--Jefferson Rogers--helped purchase Thurman's childhood home in Daytona Beach, which is near Stetson's campus, with plans to restore it as a place to further Thurman's teachings. A longtime pastor, Rogers was an early leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurman.

ROGERS' DREAM BECAME a reality in 1996, when Stetson established the Howard Thurman Program. As director, Rogers has invited a broad range of national and international activists and scholars to speak, visit classes, or hold workshops to encourage bridging intellectual work in the classroom to the practical work of advancing justice in the world.

Kwame Ture, known in the 1960s as firebrand Stokely Carmichael, spoke a year before his death in 1998. Diane Nash, a civil rights strategist of the 1960s who was jailed dozens of times in the South and sent to prison in Mississippi, also offered her wisdom. Chinese-American jazz musician Fred Ho played an Afro-Asian medley, and historian and poet Julius Thompson discussed the complex struggle to overcome oppression in America.

Former surgeon Ray Hammond spoke, as did former Fisk University president Walter Leonard, jazz guitarist Nathen Page, Rabbi Herbert M. Baumgard, filmmaker John L. Jackson Jr., and urban planner Flores Forbes, once a follower of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton.

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