It’s said that during the height of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr, kept in his pocket a well-worn copy of Jesus and the Disinherited, a 100-page treatise published in 1949 that explained the gospel as a manual of resistance for the oppressed and disenfranchised. Understanding Jesus as the champion of the oppressed had become a key guiding principle of the civil rights movement.
That principle came mainly from Howard Thurman, the author of Jesus and the Disinherited and 19 other books. Thurman was, in many ways, the intellectual force behind the entire civil rights movement, but his name is often left out of the history books.
Next week, a two-day conference will bring together local community leaders with academics from around the country to re-examine and revive Thurman’s legacy.
“The purpose of the conference is to reintroduce life, legacy and work of Howard Thurman who was an influential philosopher, theologian, mystic and poet in the 20th century, very influential in the Civil Rights Movement with many leaders who drew on his work or had meaningful relationships with him,” says Robert Kehoe, program curator at Upper House, which is hosting the conference. “But, for whatever reason, his legacy has not been as prominently featured as time has gone on as compared to others … The purpose of the conference is to begin to sort of correct that error of omission.”
The conference will get underway at noon on Thursday, April 26 and run all day Friday, April 27, featuring speeches by prominent professors from around the country as well as breakout discussion sessions. A dinner and panel discussion Friday evening will feature local religious leaders Rev. Marcus Allen of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Judge Everett Mitchell, pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, and Rev. Mark Fowler, pastor of First United Methodist Church. Selfless Ambition founder and Madison365 Publisher Henry Sanders will moderate the panel. Local musician and music educator Leotha Stanley will then wrap up the conference with a lecture and concert on Thurman’s legacy in the arts.
“Often times, when it comes to Black history, the only person we would really learn about in public schooling is Martin Luther King,” says Allen. “But (Thurman) was someone who influenced Martin Luther King. We’ll share the life of someone who you may or may not have even heard of, and so to be able to do that at the Upper House house I think is great.”
Thurman came a generation earlier than King, attending Morehouse College as a classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr. He served as dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University from 1932 until 1944, when he co-founded the first interracial, intercultural church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Fransisco.
He traveled to India in 1935, where he met Mohandas Gandhi, who instilled in him the value of nonviolent protest — a value he passed directly to King, Jr. He served as spiritual adviser and mentor to many leaders of the civil rights movement, including Sherwood Eddy, James Farmer, A. J. Muste, and Pauli Murray.
“King and Medgar Evers and others have been prominently recognized, and should be. Those are names that people still know, but people are not necessarily as acquainted with the mentors who went before King,” says Kehoe. “In many ways the conference and the work of these scholars who are coming to speak is designed to go a little bit deeper, and you can learn more about King by learning about Thurman.”
Kehoe says you don’t need to be an intellectual or an academic to get something out of this conference.
“I think that if you’re somebody who is interested in the history of Civil Rights from any background or from any angle, this is an opportunity to more deeply understand some of the thinking and some of the people who helped shape that movement,” he says. “Thurman himself was an intellectual. There’s no hiding that. But one of his gifts, I would say, is that he was an intellectual who was persistent in his desire and attempt to convey complicated ideas in a presentable and approachable fashion.”
Tickets for the full conference are $120, or $25 for full-time students. Tickets for the Friday night dinner, panel discussion and concert only are $25. Tickets and more information are available at https://www.howardthurman.org. The conference will be held at Upper House, on the second floor of 365 East Campus Mall in downtown Madison.