High School Study Guide
Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story introduces high school students to a significant but lesser-known figure behind the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s whose influence extended to the fields of race relations, contemplative spirituality, and the practice of non-violence. After watching the film and perhaps exploring excerpts from Thurman’s writing, students will be able to make important connections between Thurman and Civil Rights leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, and U.S. Congressman John Lewis, as well as with Indian Civil Rights pioneer Mahatma Gandhi. Students will be prepared to more thoroughly investigate the central role of religion in the American Civil Rights Movement and to explain Howard Thurman’s imprint on African-American religious culture today.
Questions to Consider
- After viewing the film Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story, what do you see as Howard Thurman’s most important contribution to American society?
- In the film, Thurman scholar Walter Earl Fluker describes Thurman as a “pastor” to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, and others. What do you think was Thurman’s essential contribution to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s?
- In many ways, Thurman can be seen as a link between the teaching and example of Mahatma Gandhi, who led peaceful resistance to British imperial rule in India in the early decades of the twentieth century, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who led peaceful resistance to policies of racism and segregation in this country in the 1950s and ‘60s. What sort of connection does Thurman provide between these two civil rights leaders?
- Howard Thurman strongly criticized institutional Christianity in America for too often siding with the strong against the weak and for tacitly if not actively supporting racial divisions. Can you pinpoint specific aspects of his argument? Regardless of your own religious affiliation, does Thurman’s critique of institutional Christianity in mid-twentieth-century America seem accurate to you?
- Thurman was a lifelong pacifist, as described in the film, although he said he could not predict how he might respond in some specific situations. Do you consider pacifism and non-violence to be practical responses to violent oppression, as did Thurman, King, and Gandhi? Or is our world simply too dangerous? Can the practice of nonviolence actually change the aggressor, as Thurman thought it could, or is this simply wishful thinking?
- Do you think nonviolence can be an “absolute” value (i.e. the right choice in every situation)? If not, in what kinds of scenarios do you imagine non-violence to be inappropriate or ineffective?
- Howard Thurman also thought of nonviolence as a spiritual discipline. How does considering non-violence in this way affect your thinking about it? What would such a spiritual practice look like in a daily fashion? Is it possible for a person to practice non-violence apart from a religious or spiritual commitment?
- The concept of community was central to Howard Thurman’s thinking. Much of his work was directed toward building community across racial, ethnic, and social boundaries. As indicated by the film, this was especially true in Thurman’s work with the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, which brought people together from many different racial, cultural, and even religious backgrounds.
Do you think Thurman’s idea of community is still possible today? Or is it outdated? (Or even impractical to start with?) Do you believe our nation is more or less culturally divided today than it was in Howard Thurman’s time?
- How would you describe Thurman’s overall role in the Civil Rights Movement and its genesis? Do you agree that his role or influence often has been overlooked or under-appreciated? Why or why not?
- In the film, the Reverend Jesse Jackson asserts that Thurman provided an important “philosophical framework” for the Movement. From your viewing of the film, and perhaps reading of Thurman, what do you think that framework entailed? Do you see similar philosophical frameworks behind social movements today?
- How important was Thurman’s visit with Gandhi in India in 1936? What sort of kinship or common experience did they share? What sort of challenge or encouragement did Gandhi give Thurman about the teaching of nonviolence? In what ways might the meeting with Gandhi be said to have changed Thurman?
- How would you characterize Thurman’s relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr.? What role or roles did Thurman play or seek to play in King’s life? Would you consider Thurman a formative influence on King, even though they did not march together?
- What was Thurman’s influence on other civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan, and John Lewis? In the film, these men credit Thurman with providing an essential spiritual foundation for their own work in the movement. Do you agree with that interpretation?
- Fifty years on, do you think of the Civil Rights Movement as a spiritual as well as a political/social movement? Do you think that, if the Movement had not had a spiritual component, it could have been as successful as it was?
- What difference does it make that Thurman was a spiritual resource for the movement and not a front-line activist, given Thurman’s own writings on the problem of racism in America? Does the fact that Thurman did not march negate the validity of his message? Or does it reinforce the importance of having religious or spiritual foundations for activism?
- What do you think is Thurman’s legacy today in terms of issues of race and of racial justice? What does his work have to say to contemporary movements, such as Black Lives Matter? Or debates over immigration and how religious, political, and social groups should respond to that issue?
- How would you describe Howard Thurman’s legacy for African-American culture today? Which aspects of his work do you see as most significant for contemporary African-Americans?
- Howard Thurman was, first and foremost, a preacher and a theologian. But he was also a writer, an accomplished poet, and a skilled interpreter of art and music. How does Thurman’s work in these other fields underscore his legacy? Does it give him a broader appeal? Try to list the fields that Howard Thurman’s legacy could be said to have touched, particularly in regard to African-American experience. What did he do in these other areas that was important?
- Thurman wrote an important early study of nineteenth-century slave spirituals titled Deep River (later reprinted with an earlier essay on the subject titled Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.) For Thurman, the spirituals reflected the slaves’ desire for freedom, their resistance to oppression and their descriptions of life under it, and the promise of redemption. Their cries would be heard, and they would not be left alone. How resonant is Thurman’s interpretation of the spirituals today? Do they have the same or similar meanings for us? What contribution does Thurman’s work on the spirituals make for African-American history? Does he help to put this music into its original context?
- How does Thurman’s pioneering work in civil rights, non-violence, university chaplaincy, and religious leadership reflect the importance of his legacy for African-American history and culture? In what ways was he a “first” (or almost one) in terms of his various accomplishments?
- The film describes a journey Howard Thurman took to Africa late in life. What impact did that journey have on his thought? In what ways was it an attempt on Thurman’s part to reconcile various religious and cultural traditions with which he had struggled throughout his life?
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