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Howard Thurman

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/910

Daytona produced a man whose fame was recognized by Look Magazine in 1953 in its list of the 12 most important religious leaders in the United States, and Ebony Magazine honored Howard Thurman in its list of the 50 most important people in African-American history. He was a black Christian minister as well as the minister-at-large of Boston University. He was a philosopher, a theologian, a professor, a university dean; he was at the forefront of civil rights; he founded the nation’s first fully-integrated church; his book Jesus and the Disinherited inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., and Howard Thurman’s renown caused him to be received by leaders around the world, including Mahatma Gandhi. Most important to us, he was born in the house that still stands at 614 Whitehall Street in Daytona Beach.

Thurman recalls in his autobiography that nights in Daytona “were not dark, they were black. . . I could hear the night think.” This was 1910, before small towns had street lights, and on one of those dark nights his mother woke Howard, rushing him to dress to come into the backyard; and when he looked up in silence, he was mesmerized by the dazzle of Halley’s Comet, “its tail spreading out in a shimmering fan-like shape over a vast section of the sky.” He was only 10, and he asked, “Mamma, what will happen to us when that thing falls out of the sky?” (Head and Heart 7, 15).

People across America were worrying that the comet was a sign of the end of the world or at least an impending catastrophe, but Howard’s new stepfather had brought home a small bottle of “Comet Pills” that his employer had purchased from a traveling salesman who guaranteed the pills would protect his workers “against the conflagration sure to come when the comet fell to earth” (Head and Heart 15; Prayer 81). (This same passing of Halley’s Comet was also being viewed by Mark Twain from his deathbed.)

After his stepfather died, the family returned to Daytona, and sometime later the entire Mount Bethel Baptist Church processed on a Sunday morning down the middle of the street with young Howard Thurman dressed in a white robe along with other baptismal candidates. Led by the minister and deacons wearing “black waterproof clothing,” the entourage sang “Let’s go down to Jordan, Hallelujah” until they reached the Halifax River where one deacon led Howard to the water and another walked him into the river where the minister “dipped each one under the water,” baptizing them “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (Head and Heart 18-19). (That was at the shoreline between today’s Chart House Restaurant and the Daytona Marina and Boat Works where South Street comes to the edge of the Halifax River as it intersects South Beach Street.)

When Thurman passed his eighth grade examination, there were only three high schools in Florida that would accept African Americans, and the nearest was 90 miles away–Florida Baptist Academy of Jacksonville; so he packed a borrowed old trunk without handles, securing it with rope, and spent all but a dollar for the train ticket before being told that the trunk would cost extra. Then a black man “in overalls and a denim cap” approached the crying boy and opened a “rawhide money bag” and paid the price, and “then, without a word, he turned and disappeared down the railroad track. I never saw him again” (Head and Heart 24-25).

As a man, Thurman became a leader and a model for African American civil rights and the rights of all peoples, and he saw race relations in the twentieth century as similar to the Jewish ordeal of the Roman occupation in Jesus’s day. The “urgent question was what must be the attitude toward Rome,” which, for Thurman, is the critical concern of those he calls “the disinherited in every age.”  He explores this in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) which influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., with its ideas about how to be an effective leader and how to respond for the disinherited. For Thurman, the alternatives of resistance or non-resistance each have secondary alternatives. For instance, nonresistance may take the form of imitation, assimilating into the majority culture, but Thurman sees this as “capitulation to the powerful. . ., a loss of self-respect. . ., [and] a repudiation of one’s heritage.” He cites King Herod as an example of this. Thurman also warns that another risk is what the Sadducees did–siding with the Romans and becoming like them. The other alternative for the disinherited is to withdraw into “cultural isolation” which may take the form of “bitterness and hatred” or “calculating fear.” Resistance, however, may be either overt or “merely mental” (Jesus and the Disinherited 23-25). No doubt, Thurman’s religious perspectives on social and racial conflict helped shape the leadership role later developed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1955 Dr. King invited Dr. Thurman to speak in Montgomery, Alabama, just a month before Rosa Parks was arrested, beginning the Montgomery Bus boycott.

From Howard Thurman’s humble beginnings in Daytona, he went on to national recognition through a lifetime of successes and “firsts.” Although the memory of Howard Thurman may have been replaced by memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Thurman earned his place in the shaping of American history.

As noted in Wikipedia, Thurman was tenured at Howard University, after which he founded the first fully-integrated church in the United States, The Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. Then he joined the faculty of Boston University’s School of Theology as a professor and became the first black “tenured Dean of Chapel at a majority-white university” where Martin Luther King, Jr., visited him. After his retirement, Boston University named its cultural center for him, and Howard University Divinity School also dedicated its chapel in his honor, formally naming it Thurman Chapel. As the author of 21 published books, Thurman lectured in more than 500 institutions around the world, achieving international fame, and in 1963 Daytona Beach presented the city key to him, organized a parade in his honor, and officially designated the day as Howard Thurman Day. Today, his name may be unrecognized by many in his birthplace hometown, but Howard Thurman’s legacy lives on.

(Thurman’s childhood recollections of what Daytona was like in 1910 will be the topic of the next blog post.)

To write this I used the following sources:

“City of Daytona Beach Black Heritage Trail” (Pamphlet). Heritage Trail Committee. Daytona Beach, Florida: City of Daytona Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. n.d.

Fitzgerald. T. E. Volusia County, Past and Present. Daytona Beach, Florida: The Observer Press, 1937.

“Howard Thurman.” Wikipedia. 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman&gt; (Used only for part of the opening paragraph and part of the last paragraph of my piece.)

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter to Howard Thurman, 31 Oct. 1955. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Stanford University. 18 Jun 2004. Web. 5 Feb. 2014. <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/551031ToThurman.pdf&gt;

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston, Beacon Press, 1949.

Thurman, Howard. “Prayer” (1963). In A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Thurman, Howard. With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.  (The main source for my article)