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Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground

The Morehouse Faculty Research Committee (FRC) is pleased to continue our author interview series.  Today we share a conversation with Dr. Kipton Jensen about his new book, Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground (University of South Carolina Press, 2019).  Dr. Jensen has also recently published, with David Gowler, an edited volume, Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables (Orbis Books, 2018).

What key lessons do we learn from this book?

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 one of the unsung heroes of the human and civil rights movement. Thurman graduated as valedictorian from Morehouse College in 1923. He was a professor of religion and the director of spiritual life at Morehouse and Spelman College from 1928 to 1931. After more than a decade as a professor of religion and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University, Thurman served as the pastor of an interracial and ecumenical Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953; at that point in his career, Thurman became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University until 1963, when he returned to San Francisco to direct the Howard Thurman Educational Trust. Thurman died in 1981. His ashes, together with those of his wife, Sue Bailey-Thurman, are interred in the Thurman obelisk and crypt at Morehouse College. “The time and the place of a man’s life on the earth is the time and place of his body,” wrote Thurman, “but the meaning and significance of his life is as vast and far reaching as his gifts, his times, and the passionate commitment of all his powers can make it.” Thurman’s gifts were quite considerable, and his depth of commitment was astonishing; the meaning and the significance of his life was vast and far reaching.

In Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground, I have attempted to read Thurman as a philosopher. This claim constitutes a fact about who I am, as a reader of Thurman, i.e., as someone classically trained as a philosopher, so someone attuned to the philosophical allusions and the ontological significance of what Thurman wrote. But this claim also expresses a modest philosophical thesis and an interpretative task, i.e., demonstrating that Thurman’s thought is distinctively philosophical in its scope and methods.

Many people recognize Thurman as a thoughtful and creative theologian, perhaps as an early Black liberation theologian, or an excellent orator and preacher; and perhaps they may know that he met with Gandhi in 1936 to discuss the application of nonviolence to the freedom struggle in the US, or that he served as a mentor to Martin Luther King (’48); but most people have not classified or interpreted Thurman as a philosopher. Beyond his philosophy of nonviolence, which was not only a method but also a creed for many of those who participated in the longer civil rights movement in America, Thurman should be appreciated also for his seminal insights into the philosophy of mind, especially the question of personal identity, philosophy of education, philosophy of religion, sociopolitical philosophy, and his philosophy of freedom. Thurman was, I argue, a first-rate philosopher of the head and heart.

What I have tried to do in this book is analogous to what Gary Dorrien has accomplished with respect to the theological or evangelical dimension in Thurman’s thought, namely, to show that “Thurman called American Christianity to its best religious vision and in several ways exemplified it,” such that my complementary task consists in demonstrating how Howard Thurman called—and continues to call—American philosophy, too, ‘to its best [philosophical] vision and in several ways exemplified it.’ This philosophical dimension of Thurman’s thought has been underappreciated because largely unexplored. That said, it is undeniable that Thurman was an exceptional pastor and preacher, which is why I thought it was important to co-edit a collection of his Sermons on the Parables, and his work with the Fellowship of the Church of All Peoples in San Francisco was visionary. Thurman personified the “sound of the genuine,” which is the title of his 1980 baccalaureate address to students at Spelman College, and his voice was loaded with life and vitality. He inspired an entire generation of civil rights activists. There remains a great deal of wisdom yet to be gleaned from Thurman’s life and writings.

You're a philosopher and you read Thurman as a philosopher, but you also teach leadership studies and discuss Thurman in your leadership studies classes. What can Thurman teach us about leadership?

Thurman was certainly a leader in the struggle for social justice, though not in the same way that Benjamin E. Mays was a leader nor was he out in front of the cameras and leading the march the same way that Martin Luther King was. I fear that we are sometimes paralyzed by the notion of leadership and unnecessarily myopic about who counts as a leader and who doesn’t. Leadership takes many forms. My leadership students and I recently had a conversation with Clayborne Carson, who both early and late, was reticent to pigeonhole or venerate King as a charismatic leader, since it tends to over-estimate the role of King and simultaneously underestimates the essential roles played by an entire generation of young Black activists. Reverend Otis Moss, himself an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, suggests that while Thurman “did not march from Selma to Montgomery, or many of the other marches, he participated at the level that shapes the philosophy that creates the march – and without that, people don’t know what to do before the march, while they march, or after they march.” Following a fairly generic definition of leadership as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task,” Thurman was an extremely influential leader in the longer civil rights movement and the ongoing struggle for human dignity. And while Thurman said that he “never considered himself as any kind of leader” nor “a movement man,” Albert Raboteau argues that “Thurman believed ... that true social change must be grounded in spiritual experience and personal transformation.” It is in this sense that Thurman should be recognized as an exemplary leader. 

Beyond his own life in service and leadership, whether as a pastor or a thought leader, Thurman also wrote about leadership and the importance of honesty, integrity, and social responsibility. One of the things that Thurman teaches us about leadership, and something that sticks with me, is that “a leader must know that what he condemns in others, 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.” Thurman also taught us that leaders must seek the truth: “not only the truth about themselves, about who they are and about the depth of their responsibilities, for their actions as well as their reactions, but they must also seek the truth about their society.” In his new book Moral Leadership, Dr. Robert Franklin delineates three essential elements of moral leadership: viz., “(1) people with integrity, courage, and imagination, (2) who serve the common good, (3) while inviting others to join them.” On this more exacting definition, too, Howard Thurman was a moral leader who is well worth emulating.

Thurman is such a significant figure at Morehouse. How has your presence at Morehouse affected the writing of this book?

Had I not been granted the opportunity of teaching at Morehouse College, which I continue to view as a real privilege, I wouldn’t have written this book. Although I knew of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, which I first read while teaching in Botswana, and while I was deeply moved by his distinction between the religion of Jesus and the institution of Christianity, teaching philosophy here at Morehouse endeared me to his thought and legacy. Walking past the Thurman obelisk on the way to class served as a gentle yet constant reminder to me that Thurman was underappreciated. The colleagues with whom I’ve worked since coming to Atlanta, including Dean Carter and Preston King here at Morehouse, but also Luther Smith and Walter Fluker as well as Vincent Harding, when he was teaching here, encouraged me to take Thurman’s thought seriously and to trust my instincts about his value as a philosopher. When I started teaching here, ten years ago, I promised myself that I’d contribute what I could to celebrating in earnest the intellectual and spiritual legacy of Morehouse. Beyond the scholarly encouragement that I received from my colleagues at Morehouse, it was also my privilege to meet together with students and staff members, once a week, and over the course of several years, in the Howard Thurman Meditation Room in Sale Hall, to reflect on Thurman’s legacy and listen to many of his sermons. My beloved companion on those occasions was Ms. Brenda Steele.

It is sometimes said that the philosopher or teacher one chooses depends on the sort of person one is, and that seems accurate when it comes to my choice of Thurman, but it is also true that the person one becomes depends on the teacher one chooses. My decision to dedicate myself since coming to Morehouse to Thurman’s thought has proven to be one of the best decisions of my life as a philosopher, but also as a person. Thurman’s wife once described him as ‘a tutor to the world’ and I believe that Sue Bailey was right about that; but at the very least, I can say that he has served as an excellent tutor to me.

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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 at Morehouse College.