Howard Thurman travelled to India and returned to the U.S. intent on bringing nonviolence to the struggles of African Americans, writes Walter E. Fluker.
Director Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary, “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story,” is scheduled for release on public television in February. Thurman played an important role in the civil rights struggle as a key mentor to many leaders of the movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
I have been a scholar of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. for over 30 years and I serve as the editor of Thurman’s papers. Thurman’s influence on King Jr. was critical in shaping the civil rights struggle as a nonviolent movement. Thurman was deeply influenced by how Gandhi used nonviolence in India’s struggle for independence from British rule.
Visit to India
Born in 1899, Howard Washington Thurman was raised by his formerly enslaved grandmother. He grew up to be an ordained Baptist minister and a leading religious figure of 20th-century America.
In 1936 Thurman led a four-member delegation to India, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), known as the “pilgrimage of friendship.” It was during this visit that he would meet Mahatma Gandhi, who at the time was leading a nonviolent struggle of independence from British rule.
The delegation had been sponsored by the Student Christian Movement in India who wanted to explore the political connections between the oppression of blacks in the United States and the freedom struggles of the people of India.
The general secretary of the Indian Student Christian Movement, A. Ralla Ram, had argued for inviting a “Negro” delegation. He said that “since Christianity in India is the ‘oppressor’s’ religion, there would be a unique value in having representatives of another oppressed group speak on the validity and contribution of Christianity.”
Between October 1935 and April…