Upper House Sponsors Howard Thurman
Conference on April 26-27
|Top: Dr. Howard Thurman
Above: Dr. Joseph Dancy
Disinherited” with him during his famed civil rights marches..Dr. Joseph Dancy learned about Dr. Thurman when he attended Virginia
Union University in Richmond, Virginia. Dancy learned that there was going to be a religious convention on campus that was closed to
students and Thurman was one of the scheduled speakers. Dancy could not resist.
“I didn’t know too much about him, in fact, very little,” Dancy said during a phone interview. “However, the essence of this account is I
slipped into the back of the room. At least Dr. Thurman didn’t notice me or if he did, he didn’t say anything. He was teaching a workshop
on prayer and meditation. I sat in the back and took notes. And that’s where I first met my spiritual mentor, D. Howard Thurman.”
Dancy was inspired by Thurman and began to read his books. Dancy would encounter Thurman two more times while Thurman was
alive. One was at Bishop College where he heard him give a lecture. The other was at a conference.
“I was on the stage with him at a program,” Dancy said. “It was a convention during the civil rights movement called The Black
Church Movement. I was on the program. I sat next to him and I was to give the prayer. He was to give some remarks. I was ecstatic. I
was elated. But here again, I didn’t want my enthusiasm to break the seams of my being. So I just held my enthusiasm under due
pressure and just talked with him and shook hands with him in a very reserved way as if I had been meeting him all along. I had, but
he didn’t know it.”
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2)
Movements such as the modern civil rights movement never spring out of thin air. They build upon the work and
strategies of others that lead ultimately to the attainment of the movement’s goals. And while some may lay the foundation
for the movement through the development of a strategy or theology that can be later subscribed to by millions, it is
usually someone else, a protégé, who becomes famous for implanting that foundational theology.
For example, it was Charles Hamilton Houston who devised the NAACP’s successful courtroom strategy to overturn
“separate, but equal” in the nation’s classrooms. But it was Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney in the Brown v. Board of
Education case who will be forever known — and became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice — for
overturning the nation’s segregated educational system.
And then there is Dr. Howard Thurman. Few people know of him, but his books were used as a source of inspiration and
foundational thought by many civil rights leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would carry Thurman’s book “Jesus and the
Dancy went on to purchase and read the 20 books and 45 articles that Thurman wrote. Thurman was an inspiration to Dancy and many other thought leaders in the
African American community and beyond. Thurman was no light reading.
“When you read his material, it’s not slough,” Dancy said. “It’s not cotton candy Christianity. It’s very much substantive and in depth. Most of us do not read his
works as such completely overnight. You read a page or two and then you ponder it and meditate on it. And for me, a classic book is a book that you can always go
back to and gain more or be inspired or learn. Dr. Thurman wrote with what I call density with depth. He was like Thomas Merton. These are persons who have
depth and give you much to scratch your head where it doesn’t itch in thought.”
Thurman’s work has had an impact far and wide in the African American community. Rev. Everett Mitchell also was exposed to Thurman during his collegiate and
theological education years.
“When I first read Jesus and the Disinherited, that text by itself was one of the first theological readings that I engaged when I went to Morehouse,” Mitchell said. “It
really opened my mind to think about ways in which one, Jesus can be seen as fighting for those who are the less fortunate, but also it was a way for me to see the
role of Jesus in the life that I had myself and the life of my people and the people I was around. The high Christology about Jesus wasn’t the same for everyone.
Jesus was a poor Jewish person a disconnected family who had no home and no place to live. Until I read that book, most of the images weren’t ones that put a
personal connected touch to this idea of Jesus and Christianity. I think about James Cone and all of his legacies that he is leaving behind with Malcolm and Martin
or Black power, think about the radicalness of what Thurman was writing in the 1930s. This is very radical to bring Jesus into a conversation with those who had
been disconnected into the American Dream and more likely the church itself.”
Next issue: How Thurman laid the foundation for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.