At this time of bitter political division around the world, in this time of rising racial tensions, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us? Who will bring us together?” As we approach Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength? Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”
Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King. Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice. King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.
Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement. He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste. He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.
Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith. After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.
In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi. The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S. Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice. He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation. He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.
If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God. He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times. Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation. The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding. King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation. May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.