This Monday, Jan. 17, we pause as a nation to remember and celebrate the way the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brought fairness to American life.
The national holiday is an acknowledgement that ever since the conclusion of the Civil War ended human slavery, we needed to fully endorse the opening words of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Segregation was a bloody denial of Constitution guarantees within our nation with violent lynchings, corrupt court proceedings, and refusal of voting rights directed toward people of color. Then, in the mid-1950s, God raised up a young Alabama Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., to bring a greater measure of the promised liberty to all citizens through the Biblically-based approach of nonviolence.
It was largely a church-based movement of those who felt God’s call to respond in love to the hateful behavior of many.
Hopefully, this Sunday our Haywood County churches will acknowledge one of the greatest American Christians of the last century.
One man, seldom known for his influence on the movement for freedom, however, was King’s chaplain at Boston University, Rev. Howard Thurman who got to know King best during a visit in a hospital room. He also deserves our gratitude.
In 1958, when King was 29, he was nearly murdered during a book signing in New York City. A deranged woman plunged a sharpened metal letter opener into King’s chest with such violence that the pearl handle broke off. During surgery, doctors removed two of King’s ribs and part of his breast plate and later told him that if he had sneezed, the blade could have killed him. It was lodged near his aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
As King convalesced, one visitor allowed to enter his hospital room was American theologian and pastor, the Rev. Howard Thurman. He had been King’s chaplain when King earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology at Boston University.
Thurman, the first African American chaplain in Boston University’s history, is remembered as a teacher, preacher, counselor, and mentor. He had a major influence on the Biblically-based nonviolent resistance that became the operating approach for the Montgomery city bus boycotts that King’s fellow clergy asked King to lead — the movement that grew into the Civil Rights crusade of the late 1950s and ‘60s.
“It is remarkable, how little attention the story of Thurman’s life has garnered from scholars or from the general public,” wrote Colorado history professor Paul Harvey in his book “Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography” published in October, 2020.
“Thurman is certainly not a household name. It’s easy to see why: he was an intellectual, a poet – much more than an activist. He was not on the front lines of the civil rights struggle … or appear before the cameras of national television. He never sought the limelight, preferring to remain behind the scenes, a quiet force of intellect and faith.”
Thurman became influential to King in two important ways. In 1935, Thurman along with his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, traveled to India where he met Mahatma Gandhi. Although of two different world religions, Thurman was deeply affected by Gandhi’s use of nonviolence in India’s struggle for independence from British rule.
At Gandhi’s urging, Thurman carried the strategy of nonviolent resistance home to America which he then shared through his pastorate, writings, and speaking opportunities. Many of the young leaders of the movement, including King, gained their understanding of the Christian basis for resisting evil through nonviolent action from Thurman.
During his hospital visit in 1958, he also taught King another important lesson about life — something we can all take to heart. “In that New York hospital,” wrote Harvey. “Thurman gave King the same advice he gave countless others over the decades: he should take this unexpected, if tragic, opportunity to step out of life briefly, meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward. By doing so, he could recover in both body and soul.”
Thurman believed, “In the stillness of quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, and hope to despair.”
“Howard Thurman’s life and thought illuminate many important developments and movements in twentieth-century American religion,” concluded Harvey. “In particular, he combined a mystic spirit and an activist heart for social justice. And he showed how those religious impulses could be combined in one person: how the head and the heart could work together in a person’s soul and in transforming the world at large to better reflect that which is God in all of us.”
Thanks be to God for the service of both men to our nation.