Howard Thurman became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University in 1953, making him the first African American Dean at a primarily white institution. At Boston University, Thurman preached and practiced his ideologies of nonviolent protesting and Common Ground, while influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theological creed. He both directly and indirectly shaped the course of the African American Civil Rights Movement with is work as Dean of Marsh Chapel and he is an extremely admired figure throughout the Boston University Community and the Greater Boston Area.
Backstory and Context
Howard Thurman was born and raised in Daytona, Florida on November 18, 1899. He was the grandson of a former slave and would later become Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, making him the first African American Dean of a primarily white institution. Thurman became interested in religion at an early age. As a child, he would read the bible aloud to his grandmother, and when he grew older he ultimately became a Baptist minister. His role as a religious leader would later give him the opportunity to influence many civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thurman started his higher education at Morehouse College in Atlanta and then entered seminary school shortly afterwards. After holding several jobs as a pastor and professor, he became the first African American board member of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in the 1920s. This instance was the first of many occasions where Thurman became involved in advocating for several forms of nonviolent protest. As a minister, he gravitated towards a philosophy that stressed activism rooted in faith, guided by spirit, and maintained in peace.
A large part of Thurman’s ideological formation took its shape in 1935 when he led a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” to South Asia and met Mohandas Gandhi. Meeting a figure that emphasized peace to such an extreme degree solidified Thurman’s belief in nonviolent social activism, which he then brought back to the United States. Upon his return, he wrote “Jesus and the Disinherited” which interpreted the New Testament Gospels as a foundation for a nonviolent civil rights movement. His writings argue that Jesus taught the oppressed about faith-based, unconditional love that would enable them to endorse their oppression. Applying this to the civil rights movement of the mid 20th century, Thurman urged African Americans that God’s love would help them endure suffering under white America.
In 1953 Howard Thurman became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, making him the first African American Dean at a primarily white institution. During his time at Boston University, Thurman was able to mentor old family friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. who was earning his PhD in Theology there at the time. Thurman was able to share his ideology of nonviolent protest with Dr. King which ultimately influenced the course of the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Above all, Howard Thurman stressed the idea of Common Ground- the need for people to share their life experiences with others in their community, in order to find similarities. He believed that our strength as people lies in the things we all have in common because we are more alike than we can ever be different. Howard Thurman and his ideology of Common Ground are still very present at Boston University today. The university fosters the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, a place where students can come together to share their stories.
"Howard Thurman." PBS- This Far by Faith. Accessed October 03, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/howard_thurman.html.
"About Howard Thurman." The Howard Thurman Papers Project. 2016. Accessed October 03, 2018. http://www.bu.edu/htpp/thurman/.