Howard Washington Thurman (1899–1981) played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the twentieth century. He was one of the principal architects of the modern, nonviolent civil rights movement and a key mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From The Howard Thurman Papers Project.
What does Jesus offer to a people who live with their backs against the wall? This is the question with which Howard Thurman began his landmark work, Jesus and the Disinherited, in 1949. The work became an intellectual pillar for the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1950s. Howard Thurman, an unorthodox mystic and prophet, served as a spiritual mentor to civil rights leaders in the mid-century black freedom struggle. Until recently, Thurman’s work was not as widely known or studied among white Christian communities as it deserved to be. But our current historical moment offers new impetus to return to this spiritual giant and particularly to his seminal work on Jesus.
In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman recounts a conversation he had while on a six-month speaking tour of South Asia in the 1930s sponsored by the Student Christian Movement, a group co-sponsored by the YMCA and YWCA. At the time, India struggled for independence from British colonialism. After one of his talks, Thurman describes a conversation with a young Indian lawyer who made this observation:
What are you doing over here? I know what the newspapers are saying about a pilgrimage of friendship and the rest, but that is not my question. What are you doing over here? ... More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western coast of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians. ...1
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