In February, local PBS stations will premiere an hour-long documentary about a theological giant of the twentieth century, Howard Thurman (1899-1981). Famous among activists for his influence on the civil rights movement, Thurman is a complicated figure who defies easy categorization. Capturing the central features of Thurman’s life, ministry, and writings is no easy task. The film, titled Backs Against the Wall, focuses on Thurman’s influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle to end Jim Crow. It admirably revives Thurman’s reputation as a theologian of the civil rights movement but at the cost of diminishing his other legacies and other aspects of his life’s work.
Backs Against the Wall is the latest from director Martin Doblmeier, who has made a career of directing documentaries of religious figures. He prefers heroes and prophets, like the subject of his most famous documentary, the Nazi-fighting German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Thurman, Doblmeier has found yet another hero that lets him tell a story he is fond of telling. Backs Against the Wall, like many of his other films, is about a version of Christianity that is a source of moral courage and political progress, a refuge from the forces of evil and a resource to overcome oppression. Judging from the tone of this film and his previous ones, it is a version of Christianity that Doblmeier wishes more people would follow.
Thurman was born at the turn of the twentieth century and grew up in the boomtown of Daytona, Florida, under humble circumstances. The town was so thoroughly segregated that white people “were not a part of my magnetic field of awareness,” he says in an archived interview featured in the documentary. His mother was a domestic worker—his father, a railroad worker, passed away when Thurman was 7 years old—and so he was partly raised by his maternal grandmother. She had spent the first twenty years of her life enslaved and told stories to young Thurman about clandestine preaching by enslaved ministers. “There was a contagion which came to us as little children that the creator of existence also created me,” Thurman recounts in the film’s archival footage in his characteristically slow cadence and his deep voice. “And therefore, with that sort of backing, I could absorb all the violences of life.”
A precocious child, he was soon on his way to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1923. Like many African American men of his generation who were academically gifted, he became an ordained minister in the Baptist church. He moved north to enroll in the predominantly white Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary, which accepted no more than two black students each year. His first pastorate was in Oberlin, Ohio.* Excelling academically and at preaching, he was invited back by Morehouse and nearby Spelman College as a professor of religion and director of religious life. He soon married his first wife, Katie Kelley, who died of tuberculosis in 1930. In 1932, he took a similar position at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he would meet and marry Sue Bailey.
Although she often fades into the background in the documentary, Sue Bailey was a force in her own right. She was often called to support her husband’s ministry and academic work but it did not subsume her other interests. She had been a student at Spelman and graduated from Oberlin with a degree in music in 1926 and shortly thereafter toured the country as part of a quartet. She then worked for the YWCA and gained an international reputation as a speaker and organizer. She also worked for the National Council of Negro Women and founded the organization’s first journal in 1940, which she edited until she moved to San Francisco in 1944. The following year, she was a delegate at the founding conference of the United Nations and would have an ongoing relationship with the organization. A talented writer, her decades-long record of publishing included everything from the history of African American pioneers in California to cookbooks focused on African American dishes.
Howard Thurman also had a gift for writing. In 1949, he published his most important book, Jesus and the Disinherited. “Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth,” the book begins. “But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.” The title of the documentary comes from these lines.
The book raised challenging questions about a religion that was largely segregated by race. Even today, churches remain some of the most segregated institutions in the country. White churches are sometimes accused, in the words of minister and activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, of practicing a “slaveholder’s religion.” Thurman put it somewhat more diplomatically in 1949. “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” Thurman asked presciently. “Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?”
In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman depicted Jesus as a poor member of an ethnic minority living in a colony of the Roman empire, who spoke directly to the oppressed. This Jesus preached against the temptations of fear, deception, and hatred with a message of the dignity and worth of all people. Most of all, he preached love. “Love of the enemy means that a fundamental attack must first be made on the enemy status,” Thurman wrote. “The privileged and the underprivileged” must meet in places without hierarchy in order to overcome it. “The experience of the common worship of God is such a moment.”
Thurman was writing this in the late 1940s from San Francisco, where he was co-pastor of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples. It was one of the first (and, to this day, one of the few) self-consciously integrated churches in the country. Among its members were Japanese- and Chinese-Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and whites, who together modeled an avant-garde multiculturalism. From his pulpit, Thurman could preach “that American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption” by segregating people. This small church was founded to demonstrate of vision of an integrated future—a beloved community—that Thurman hoped would one day come to pass.
The church also expressed his heterodox religious practices. Backs Against the Wall describes some of these services but the documentary’s reliance on narration, interviews, and photographs does not quite capture what worship was like at the Fellowship of All Peoples. The rhythm of his sermons was slow, with long pauses. His church incorporated silence into its services. Jazz bands would pass through the church. Vespers services sometimes included experimental interpretive dance. It was a heterodox, syncretic form of worship, quite different from the Sunday mornings of other churches.
The overriding question of Thurman’s career was how to “manage the carking fear of the white man’s power and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred,” as he put it in his autobiography. Perhaps it was for this reason that Martin Luther King Jr. was said to carry a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited when he travelled. And it is Thurman’s connection to King and the civil rights movement that Doblmeier focuses on in his documentary.
Like other famous African Americans of the generation before the civil rights movement, Thurman’s story is subsumed by the drama of the movement to end Jim Crow in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. In the documentary, the story of Thurman’s life is narrated by the leaders of the movement. In Backs Against the Wall, it is Thurman’s contribution to the civil rights movement—a movement which he influenced but from a distance—that forms the major story line and the denouement of his life’s work.
Georgia Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader, tells us that “Howard Thurman was a saint of the movement.” That’s not an entirely obvious description for an ethicist and theologian who lived until 1981 but was never on the front lines. He rarely marched, picketed, or protested. Civil rights activist and minister Otis Moss Jr. jokes in the documentary, “They were praying for a great freedom fighter, a liberator. One of them said, ‘You know we thought we had a Moses, and we ended up with a mystic.’”
Thurman had been interested in mysticism since at least 1929, when he spent a semester at Haverford College, where he studied with the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones. To Jones and Thurman, mysticism meant that the most authentic experience of God could be found within oneself and in conversation with nature. “Thurman is talking to trees. Trees!” exclaims Walter Earl Fluker, the editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, in the film. “Howard Thurman was practicing contemplative spirituality before we started calling it contemplative spirituality,” says Lerita Coleman Brown, professor emerita of psychology at Agnes Scott College. This kind of spiritual solitude was no retreat from difficult situations. Thurman focused inward, on the psychological dimensions of oppression and how to overcome it. He understood his role as counseling others about how best to protect activists’ spiritual and psychological well-being from the onslaught of fists, water hoses, police dogs, and batons that they regularly faced.
He also popularized the idea of non-violence. Thurman attributed his interest in passive resistance to a trip he took with his wife and a YMCA delegation to India in 1935. “He was horrified by the treatment of Indian people,” historian Peter Eisenstadt tells producers in the documentary. “He was horrified by imperialism.” Sue and Howard Thurman both lectured on African American history and black spirituality as they travelled across the Indian colony. The delegation was invited to a private meeting with Mohandas Gandhi, who speculated that it would be African Americans who would bring the non-violent protest he was pioneering in India to the United States. It was a crystalizing moment for Thurman’s commitment to non-violent passive resistance.
By making the civil rights movement the key legacy of Thurman, we lose sight of some of the heterodox practices and other legacies he left behind. Tracing his contributions beyond 1968—the documentary abruptly jumps from Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to Thurman’s death in 1981—is a complicated task. Take, for example, Thurman’s integrationist visions. In the 1940s, Albert Cleage had passed through the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples as an intern and was put off by the interracial ministry.** Cleage would soon become famous for founding Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna, which preached a black nationalist gospel. Was imagining a black Jesus simply an extension of Thurman’s investigation of what Jesus had to say to dispossessed African Americans? In any case, Cleage rejected the mission of integration, preferring self-help and self-determination.
Cleage may be an extreme example but African American denominations rarely prioritize integration over community-building. Thurman’s unique worship style is likewise hard to place in today’s religious landscape. He was a theologian of civil rights but he was also a prophet of a post-Protestant future. His interest in mysticism and religious universalism are far more likely to be found today outside of Christian churches, in places like yoga studios, Oprah’s book clubs, spiritual retreats, and SoulCycle classes.
By focusing on the struggle against segregation in the South, the film also loses track of what historian Thomas Sugrue calls the “forgotten struggle for civil rights in the North.” Thurman spent many decades in San Francisco and Boston but his legacy in these places is left undiscussed. Did his church and ministry have an impact in California and Massachusetts? Did anyone in these regions, which were not as infused with Protestant Christianity as the South, heed his prophetic calls? Placing Thurman in the triumphant narrative of the civil rights movement avoids the messiness of America’s racial politics and the unfinished work of integration to which Thurman dedicated his life.
We do hear echoes of Thurman’s voice in the speeches of today’s religious leaders like Moral Mondays organizer and minister William Barber, who instructs readers of the online publication Faith and Leadership that “we would do ourselves well to recover the language of Howard Thurman—Jesus and the Disinherited, for instance.” We also hear Thurman’s voice in Oprah Winfrey’s prosperity gospel. In the documentary, she invokes words that she attributes to Thurman when she tells college graduates: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” There are glimmers of Thurman’s legacy in all of these things. But capturing the life of this theological giant in all its complexity is too big of a task for this brief documentary.
Gene Zubovich is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Toronto. His most recent academic article, “For Human Rights Abroad, Against Jim Crow at Home,” was published in the Journal of American History. Follow him on Twitter: @genezubovich.
*Correction: The previous two sentences were updated to show the order of Thurman’s theological education and first pastorate.
**Correction: This sentence was amended to reflect the fact that Cleage arrived at the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples before Thurman took up his post there.