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Howard Thurman on Morehouse and Social Justice Leadership

Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981) was considered by many to have been a “twentieth century holy man.” Named one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century" by Life magazine, Thurman is an unsung hero of the civil rights movement and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman graduated as valedictorian from Morehouse College in 1923. He was both a professor and the director of spiritual life at Morehouse College from 1928 to 1931. Subsequently, Thurman taught at Howard University. In 1936, Thurman met with Gandhi in India. Thurman was the pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953, at which point he became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

The “creative genius” of Morehouse College, as Thurman described it back in 1967, consisted in an educational process that fostered a “primary intimate encounter that insisted that it was their [students’] prerogative and that it was mandatory to experience themselves as human beings,” i.e., not only to recognize their potential but also “to get on the scent of their potential and follow it all the way.” And while it may be more difficult to measure or otherwise assess this private result, Thurman asks us to keep in mind “the overwhelming impact down in the quiet places where the ultimate decisions as to self-validation and affirmation remain.”

Thurman suggested that “the educational process that was set in motion a hundred years ago in Augusta, Georgia, as the creative genius of a school for Negro men, is justified by its private result—that is, by its result in the lives of the generations of men who have been touched by its glow. The most important thing in life for any man at any time is the development of his own best self, the incentive to actualize his own potentials. The central emphasis of the past was on the intrinsic worth of the individual student, the necessity to experience himself as a human being in a climate which he had no standing.”

In a 1960 Address at Boston University, Thurman described character development as the basis for what Walter Fluker calls “visionary public leadership.” Thurman suggests that:

One of the most searching demands of leadership is integrity and honesty. The leader must above all else be a seeker of truth. In his private life of thought and deed he must not violate the ideals which he embraces in his role as the leader of others. The integrity of the act cannot be separated from the integrity of the person and the word. Therefore, the leader must seek truth. He must seek the truth about himself.

Thurman thinks that the ideal leader must also “accept himself” for who he is and “at long last say ‘yes’ to his own basic equipment.” Thurman claims that leaders know themselves and accept themselves in the sense that they recognize and acknowledge that “he [or she] is not as brilliant or as able as someone else seems to be” nor necessarily have “the kind of charm that attracts others to him [or her] in the way that someone else can” nor “have the advantages of background and family heritage that someone else can claim.” Citing an adage from Abraham Lincoln, Thurman said that “it’s up to you to whittle what you can with what you’ve got—and what I am, I am.” Despite one's shortcomings in terms of intelligence and education, regardless of one’s charm and charisma, quite apart from one’s socio-economic or cultural capital and station in life, one can still become an outstanding leader.

The most searching demands of leadership, claims Thurman, consists in “taking responsibility for his [or her] own actions." Again Thurman:

It is very tempting to shift the responsibility for decisions. The leader can say very easily that he [or she] is held captive by the tyranny of his responsibilities. . . True it is that there is an etiquette and sometimes what seems to be a morality of office that leaves little room for the integrity of the person. But that fact does not provide an alibi for shifting responsibility to the position or office which one holds. It is a man who is the chairman, or the president or the leader. As a man he is responsible for his actions in his office. Life does no know about status, position, or place, it knows only that the man, the living, the breathing man, is a responsible agent however he may function in his roles.

What Thurman says here is especially poignant when considering, as often we do, and must, the status of a corporation and the agency or responsibility of those who operate it. A corporation may not have a conscience, Thurman would admit, but those in leadership positions within a corporation must take responsibility for the decisions they make and the lives affected by those decisions. In addition to taking responsibilities for one’s actions, Thurman suggests that a socio- ethical leader must also “be willing to take responsibility for his [or her] reactions." Though much of what occurs in our lives, as individuals and in roles of leadership, is out of our control, “the true character of the person is often revealed” by one’s reaction to what occurs. What Thurman wrote in 1960 is doubly true today: 

We are living in a time of revolutions, technological and social. Our reaction to these revolutions may be one of fear, panic, and despair. We may in our reaction be stripped of all hope and all confidence not only about the meaning of our own lives but about the significance of the future of mankind. Or we may in our reaction be inspired to deeper commitment to higher purposes and more meaningful resolves to the end that in us the dreams of mankind that are cherished will be worked at with fresh vigor and new hope. How we react is our responsibility – and from this there is no escape.

All of this belongs, thought Thurman, to the socio-ethical mandate that leaders must seek the truth, not only the truth about themselves, about who they are and the depth of their respective responsibilities, for their actions as well as their reactions, but socio-ethical leaders must also seek the truth about their society. The responsible leader is someone who is “able to assess it properly and clearly.” The truth about one’s society entails yet another socio-ethical maxim: 

[The leader] must know that what he condemns in others, alas, he dare not encourage in himself. The ideals which he demands of the political or social life of his times must not be other than the ideal which he cherishes for himself. In doing so he will discover that at long last the only place of refuge for any man in the world is in his own heart.

Similar to Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman’s ideal of socio-ethical leadership begins and ends with very personal questions of honesty, truth, and integrity. It is with this high calling in mind that Thurman wrote: “Over the heads of students, Morehouse holds a crown that they are challenged to grow tall enough to wear.”

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Kipton E. Jensen is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Leadership Studies Program in the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership (AYCGL) at Morehouse College. His most recent books are Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables (Orbis Books, 2018) and Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground (University of South Carolina Press, 2019).