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
A FLORIDA CHILDHOOD
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
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. …