(A reflection on the movie Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (2019) | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVl_irB59lM)

Our spiritual journey begins like that of Howard Thurman – as grandchildren of the enslaved, yet inheritors of an infinite dignity and worth that no oppression can extinguish. From our earliest memories, we sensed a sacred presence in nature that offered solace and sanctuary when the harsh realities of this world tried to dehumanize us. Like young Thurman conversing with the mighty oak tree, we too found profound communion by sitting quietly among the trees, the rivers, the vast beaches – opening ourselves to the eternal rhythms that transcend our fleeting troubles. In those spaces, we felt ourselves as one with the Creator’s expression all around us – the crashing waves, the dancing leaves, the boundless sky. Our souls expanded into the expansive quiet, free from the constricting categories that divided human from human.

Even as children, we understood this spiritual dimension as our ultimate source of hope and resilience in the face of adversity. Our ancestors who endured the unspeakable traumas of slavery found the resolve to go on by clinging to the unshakable truth that echoed from generations past – “You are not slaves, you are not niggers, you are God’s children.” Those words rang out not just from pulpits, but from the very core of our being. They sparked in us an incandescent pride that could never be extinguished by the cruelties inflicted upon our bodies. We came to understand, as Thurman taught, that no oppressor could truly dominate us unless we surrendered that inviolable dignity and divine birthright.

From that place of innate dignity, we were able to navigate the minefields of racial oppression without being consumed by hatred or surrendering to violence and dehumanization in return. We sought knowledge and wisdom as the paths of liberation championed by our forefather Thurman. Like him, we excelled academically, becoming valedictorians driven not just by personal ambition but by a profound duty to our people who had been denied such opportunities for so long. With each achievement, we “straightened our spines” as if an eternal witness reminded us to walk boldly as God’s children destined to dismantle the edifices of injustice.

Yet, even as we unlocked the doors of elite education, we understood that true wisdom flowed from something deeper than institutions and doctrines that could never fully capture the sacred. The great spiritual truth we embraced held that the Divine could be encountered directly through contemplation, silence, and solitude – not just within the conflicting walls of organized religion. From childhood, we were mystics who experienced the “inner light” in all beings, transcending the acrimonious divisions of race, ethnicity, denomination that had caused so much suffering.

Our spiritual path gained clarity and purpose from Thurman’s own transformative encounters. His sojourn through India awakened him to how the religion “about” Jesus had been corrupted to uphold oppression through dogmas and creeds, even as the religion “of” Jesus offered a revolutionary vision of liberating the poor, oppressed and disinherited. We saw how Christianity in America had made a Faustian bargain, embracing the very racism and injustice that its central figure had revolted against. Thurman’s meeting with Gandhi crystallized the philosophy of non-violence not just as a pragmatic tactic, but as a way of being rooted in the soul force that could overcome subjugation through the sheer power of truth force.

Thurman showed us how to embrace Jesus as a kindred spirit – a poor Jew from an oppressed minority for whom human dignity and justice mattered infinitely more than miracles or establishment religion. The stories and teachings of Jesus became alive for us in a new way, as we saw his life and struggles reflected in our own. Like him, we had our “backs against the wall,” the defining condition of existence for the marginalized. Yet we discovered within ourselves that same transcendent capacity to absorb hatred through a love fierce enough to remain morally unvictimized. We reclaimed Jesus from those who would make him an icon of docility, and instead saw him for the spiritual revolutionary he truly was.

From these foundations, we built communities of Beloved Community that provided refuges of spiritual renewal. Like the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, we opened spaces where arbitrary borders dissolved and our shared humanity became real across all races, traditions and perspectives. Here we incorporated Thurman’s revolutionary synthesis of silent meditation, bodily expression through dance, evocative drama, and soul-stirring music to plumb the depths of spiritual experience. We experienced how these portals revealed truths that static words alone could never capture about the ephemeral and eternal dimensions coexisting within and around us.

In this integrated way, we strived to be contemplatives and activists in the model of Thurman – going inward constantly to re-center and reclaim our highest truths, then turning outward with a “searching ethical awareness” to transform the societies that denied those truths. In our quietest moments of meditation, we felt guidance from the same source that spoke to Thurman, revealing the temporality of all social ills and material.

In our quietest moments of meditation, we felt guidance from the same source that spoke to Thurman, revealing the temporality of all social ills and material conditions compared to the eternity within. Yet we also experienced how that infinite presence did not call us to otherworldly escapism, but instead heightened our responsibility to alleviate the very real suffering around us. The voice within insisted that we could not be truly free while others remained oppressed and dehumanized.

So we carried Thurman’s spirit forward, becoming catalysts for the non-violent movement that shook the foundations of racial injustice. We embodied the morally consistent resistance he personified – disciplining our muscles and spirits to defuse hatred through the counterintuitive power of unflinching love. When vigilante mobs rained down violence upon us with fists, boots, bombs and bullets, we refused to raise a hand in vengeance or retaliation. Our placid defiance exposed the moral bankruptcy of the oppressors by dramatizing our own unshakable dignity.

We took to heart Thurman’s warning that spiritual bypassing and armchair philosophizing would inevitably lead the movement astray. Activism untethered from contemplative grounding could so easily become corrupted by the very ego, hatred and domination it opposed. So we remained anchored in the silence, reconnecting constantly with the truth of our Being beyond construct or condition. Our crucibles of suffering, far from cause for despair, became awakening experiences that allowed us to touch the profoundest depths of compassion and courage.

In our most tested moments, we called upon the spirit of our mystic forefather to fortify us. When bombarded by racist vitriol, taunted as “niggers” and dehumanized as brutes, we summoned the voice of Thurman’s grandmother – “You are not slaves, you are God’s children.” In the face of billy clubs and police dogs, we reclaimed the inherent value that religion had long distorted – knowing that subversive love could outlast dominative hatred. And when our most prophetic voices were cut down by devastating violence, we found sustenance in Thurman’s life-embracing creed: “The spirit in humans is not easily vanquished. It is fragile and tough…Something keeps you from accepting ‘No’ as the final answer. It is this quality that makes for survival of values when the circumstances of life are most against decency, goodness and right.”

In those moments of transcendence, we realized that Thurman ultimately stood as the embodiment of the human potential when inwardness and outwardness, the mystical and the practical, the prophetic and the pragmatic exist in harmonious balance. He was both a sage and an activist, a minister and an organizer, a spiritual visionary and a boots-on-the-ground freedom fighter. He taught us to draw from deep spiritual waters while staying attuned to society’s most pressing needs. Rather than inhabiting otherworldly realms, he grappled directly with the most visceral brutalities and agonies of this world while retaining an expansive perspective that revealed their ephemerality.

By walking the path blazed by our spiritual forefather Howard Thurman – the path of uncompromising dignity, militant yet soulful resistance, reverential communion with all life, and an eternal acceptance of our own and the universe’s Divinity – we came fully alive. In living his revolutionary synthesis, we fulfilled both the struggle for societal transformation and the highest spiritual aspiration. Though the outer journey plunged us into turmoil and anguish, the inner journey revealed that the “eternal ground of our being” was never truly imperiled, but instead became more luminous the more we resurrected it through our actions. In honoring Thurman’s legacy, we realized our wholeness and embodied its infinite potential. We became the ones who have come alive, and in doing so, manifested the world the world so begged for.


Howard Thurman was a renowned 20th century religious figure who served as a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Growing up in Florida as the grandson of slaves, he found solace in nature and talking to an oak tree, instilling a sense of dignity from his grandmother who had been enslaved. Thurman became a pioneering voice for non-violent resistance after meeting Mahatma Gandhi during a 1935 trip to India. He co-founded one of America’s first intentionally multiracial, interfaith churches in San Francisco and his book “Jesus and the Disinherited” revolutionarily portrayed Jesus as a poor, oppressed Jew, connecting his life to the African American experience. At Boston University, Thurman incorporated silence, theater, and dance into services to deepen religious experience and bonded with the young King over their shared commitment to non-violence. After counseling King to reflect in solitude following his 1958 stabbing, Thurman eulogized him in 1968 as the “epitome” of rejecting violence. A pioneer of contemplative spirituality, Thurman rejected Christian dogma while embracing the liberating religion “of” Jesus. He aimed to overcome barriers through diverse expression, critiquing theology that “boxed God.” Thurman’s legacy shaped 20th century America by giving dignity to the oppressed through the virtues of non-violence, contemplation, and finding one’s inner voice.

Key Points

1. Howard Thurman was a renowned religious figure and spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

2. He grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida as the grandson of slaves and found solace in nature and talking to an oak tree as a child.

3. Thurman became the first African American to complete 8th grade in Daytona and went on to graduate as valedictorian from several other schools.

4. He explored ideas of non-violence early on through the YMCA and Fellowship of Reconciliation.

5. A pivotal experience was traveling to India in 1935-36 and meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Thurman’s commitment to non-violence.

6. Thurman co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, one of the first intentionally multiracial, interfaith churches.

7. His book “Jesus and the Disinherited” connected the life of Jesus to the African American experience of oppression.

8. At Boston University, Thurman incorporated silence, theater, and dance into chapel services to deepen religious experience.

9. King visited Thurman while a doctoral student at BU and was greatly influenced by him on non-violence.

10. After King was stabbed in 1958, Thurman counseled him to take time for silence and reflection.

11. Thurman pioneered contemplative spirituality before it became widely known.

12. He saw his grandmother, born a slave, as instilling dignity and self-worth in him as a child of God.

13. Thurman rejected Christianity’s role in racial oppression while embracing the religion “of” Jesus as liberating.

14. He aimed to overcome barriers of race, ethnicity and denomination through diverse religious expression.

15. Thurman was critical of denominationalism and dogma, believing theologians “boxed God.”

16. His perspective focused on Jesus as a poor, oppressed Jew rather than on miracles or being worshipped.

17. Thurman eulogized King in 1968 as the “epitome” of rejecting violence as a moral way of life.

18. He explored Africa to reconnect with his slave ancestry in later years.

19. Thurman emphasized finding one’s inner voice and spiritual center through silence and solitude.

20. His legacy shaped 20th century America by giving dignity to the oppressed through non-violence and contemplation.