Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (PBS)

“I would have to find out, what was the word that the religion of Jesus says to the man with his back against the wall?” – Howard Thurman

The one-hour documentary Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story details the life of the man who became the spiritual backbone of the American Civil Rights Movement.

I watched it because I honestly hadn’t heard of him until a few weeks ago. My parents did a most excellent job of teaching me black history when I was growing up. This giant of a man, we missed. (Or maybe, I missed!)

Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was born in West Palm Beach, Florida. As a child, he connected with God through quiet times in nature. A tree, he said, was his best friend. He also developed his Christian faith through his family, especially his grandmother, who had been a slave.

Thurman graduated from high school at a time when there were only three high schools for African-Americans in the state of Florida. He went on to graduate from Morehouse College (he was classmates with Martin Luther King Sr.), and was ordained a Baptist minister while he was still in theological school. Although Baptist, Thurman’s approach to Christianity was not limited to one denomination.

In 1944, Thurman co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. One of the first interracial churches in the country, this was incredibly radical at the time. Even more radical, worship wasn’t only sermon and song. It also included contemporary dance and meditation outdoors.

His non-traditional approach to Christianity was further cultivated by his studies with Quaker mystic and philosopher, Rufus Jones, as well as the time he spent with Mahatma Ghandi in India. Thurman saw the caste system and British minority rule over millions of people up close. The similar struggle of Indians and African-Americans only strengthened Thurman’s belief that non-violent resistance was the right approach to end their collective disenfranchisement.

Thurman was Dean of Chapel at both Howard University and Boston University. He was highly influential over civic and spiritual leaders in the mid-20th century. He wrote twenty books, the most well-known being Jesus and the Disinherited (1949.) In the book, Thurman interprets the teachings of Jesus through the experience of poor and oppressed people and offers nonviolent responses to the oppression. Jesus and the Disinherited was the book Martin Luther King Jr. was reading during the Montgomery Bus boycott. “What does Jesus have to say to the man whose back is against the wall?” That book became the “bible” of the Civil Rights Movement.

This documentary is fascinating. It left me wanting to learn more about Howard Thurman. Him being called a “mystic” is most interesting.
He practiced what is now called a “contemplative spirituality.” Thurman simply believed in a direct experience or connection to God. An intermediary, like a minister, isn’t necessary. People can feel, talk to, love, experience, or worship God in a variety of ways. Thurman was not interested in saving souls. He focused on people moving through life as fully realized human beings.

Thurman’s reach was long and wide. We all benefited from his life and teachings. Watch the one-hour documentary here on MPT.tv. Also, Journey Films, the company behind the documentary, has more information on screenings and events.

Backs Against the Wall gets ten out of ten Mocha Angels.

Oprah quotes Howard Thurman at 24:31.

Up Next: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (Netflix)

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