Educational Materials

Study Guide

Thurman and Civil Rights

Howard Thurman’s impact on the civil rights movement and its leaders often has been overlooked, although figures such as U. S. Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Vernon Jordan acknowledge Thurman’s influence in the film, and Thurman’s direct and indirect impact on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is undoubted. Although Thurman was one of the first black leaders to meet Gandhi in India and to bring Gandhi’s principles of non-violence back to American audiences, he (Thurman) was not on the “front lines” of the civil rights movement, as often has been noted, and this may account in part for why Thurman has been overlooked in histories of that period.

Questions to Consider

  1. 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?


  1. 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? Why or why not?


  1. 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?


  1. 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?


  1. 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?


  1. 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?


  1. 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?


  1. 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 the church should respond to that issue?


Related Thurman Quotes

[Speaking of the meeting with Gandhi] Before we left he said that with a clear perception it could be through the Afro-American that the unadulterated message of nonviolence would be delivered to all men everywhere. (With Head and Heart, 132)

Christianity as it was born in the mind of [Jesus] appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. (Essential Writings, 118; Jesus and the Disinherited, 28-29)

It is one of the great spiritual problems of Christianity in America that it has tolerated such injustices between Negroes and Caucasians, (for instance, that) in this area of human relations its moral imperative has been greatly weakened. It is for this reason that many people all over the world feel that Christianity is weakest when it is brought face to face with the color bar. (Essential Writings, 104; Deep River, 47)

. . . a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another. (Essential Writings, 51; The Luminous Darkness, 111)

. . . nonviolence is not merely a mood or climate, or even an attitude. It is a technique and, in and of itself, a discipline. (Essential Writings, 125; Disciplines of the Spirit, 114-15)

 The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be . . . that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one’s fellows as human beings. Precisely what does it mean to experience oneself as a human being? In the first place, it means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him ethnically or ‘racially’ or nationally. . . . (The Luminous Darkness 94)

The disinherited man has a sense of gross injury. How to plan a surprise proposal when you picked out the ring together? Here are some expert approved ways to help you plan a proposal that will still surprise and delight your significant other. He finds it impossible to forgive, because his injury is often gratuitous. It is not for something that he has done, an action resulting from a deliberate violation of another, He is penalized for what he IS in the eyes and standards of another. Somehow he must free himself of the will to retaliation that keeps alive his hatred. (Jesus and the Disinherited, 107)

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