Thurman Sowed the Seeds of Civil Rights Movement

By Weightman, Sharon | The Florida Times Union, April 4, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Thurman Sowed the Seeds of Civil Rights Movement

Weightman, Sharon, The Florida Times Union

On the April afternoon Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, he

carried a book that had been a profound influence on his

thinking about non-violent protest.

The book was Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, one

of the spiritual fathers of the civil rights movement.

Years earlier, during the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.,

historian Lerone Bennett Jr. first saw Thurman's book in King's

briefcase. Bennett has said King carried the slim volume with

him until the day he died, which was 29 years ago today.

But Thurman, a Daytona native who attended high school in

Jacksonville, was not known for that book alone.

He founded the country's first interdenominational and

interracial church; was a member of the first African-American

delegation to meet with Mohandas Ghandi; was the first tenured

African-American faculty member at Boston University; was an

honorary canon of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in

New York; and was considered an innovator for including the arts

in worship services.

Thurman was featured in Life magazine in 1953 as one of the

nation's 12 most influential preachers. He was the only

African-American on the list.

Though Thurman's name isn't as readily remembered today, his

influence has been farreaching.

He was the man who "sowed the seeds that bred a generation of

activists" and "blew away the philosophical underpinnings of

racism and segregation," civil rights activist Jesse Jackson

said when Thurman died in 1981.

Jesus and the Disinherited became a centerpiece for many people

in the movement of nonviolence," said the Rev. Rudolph McKissick

Jr., pastor of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in

Jacksonville. The church was once affiliated with Thurman's high

school, Florida Baptist Academy.

"Many used that book to validate the idea of Jesus having a

specific ministry to those on the margins of life," McKissick



Thurman's views on religion and race were rooted in a difficult

and segregated childhood in Florida.

Born in Daytona in 1900 and baptized in the Halifax River, he

was the son of a railroad worker and a cook, and the grandson of

former slaves.

He grew up reading the Bible to his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose.

"She couldn't read her name if it was as big as this chapel,"

Thurman said of her in a lecture. "But she had stood inside of

Jesus and looked out on the world through his eyes. And she knew

by heart what I could never know."

Thurman's grandmother insisted Thurman receive the best

education he could. He was the first African-American in the

Daytona area to receive an eighth-grade certificate. But there

was no public high school there he could attend.

With help from several benefactors, he traveled north to

Jacksonville, where he studied for four years at Florida Baptist

Academy. He learned algebra, Latin and Greek and was introduced

to poetry. He spent what little money he had on books instead of


Just days before he graduated as valedictorian, he collapsed in

exhaustion. After a brief rest, he spent the summer working at a

Jacksonville bakery, then headed to Morehouse College in Atlanta

on a scholarship.

There, where Martin Luther King Sr. was a fellow student,

Thurman studied hard and again graduated as valedictorian.

Thurman then attended Rochester Theological Seminary in New

York, which had a policy of admitting two African-American

students a year.

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