Learning from Martin Luther King’s Mentor

By Marcia Hotchkiss

Those familiar with the late Howard Thurman know that he was considered the spiritual director of the civil rights movement and that Martin Luther King Jr. carried Jesus and the Disinherited in his coat pocket while marching for social change. “Part of Howard Thurman’s response to God was to provide the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings for the work that calls people to action,” Lerita Coleman Brown writes.

While Thurman did not march, he knew that without spiritual grounding, social activism was too difficult to sustain peacefully. Besides King, Thurman mentored and inspired Jesse Jackson, Bayard Rustin, Marian Wright Edelman, Vernon Jordan, and many others. Thurman and his wife were among the earliest activists to travel to India and meet with Gandhi. They brought back Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence that King adopted.

What Makes You Come Alive is composed of ten chapters on different topics that identify Thurman’s significance in the 20th-century American church, contemplative spirituality, and the civil rights movement.

Coleman Brown relates how racism was a very real presence throughout Thurman’s life, but through the spiritual nurturing of his mother and grandmother, a former slave who could not read, he learned to know the Creator of the universe by reading Scripture and by being in nature. As a young boy he found that silence and solitude were important spiritual disciplines that enabled him to “center down” and commune with the Transcendent. Coleman Brown relates how her introduction to this important figure legitimized her questions about the lack of Black and Brown voices in the contemplative stream of Christianity.

Thurman observed that Jesus was a contemplative, as he often prayed alone in the early morning or late in the day after the crowds had gone away: “This was the time for the long breath, when all the fragments left by the commonplace, when all the hurts and the big aches could be absorbed, and the mind could be freed of the immediate demand, when voices that had been quieted by the long day’s work could once more be heard, when there could be the deep sharing of the innermost secrets and the laying bare of the heart and mind.” Thurman’s words are seamlessly woven into the text throughout the book.

Each chapter discusses an aspect of Thurman’s core beliefs, and relates them to Coleman Brown’s experiences of living as a Black woman in the United States. Coleman Brown relates the importance of Thurman’s beliefs to everyday spiritual seekers. She teaches that deep connection with the living God is not just for monks, but for everyone. Thurman’s belief that everyone is a holy child of God, spiritually and psychologically, anchors us in all areas of life. She expands on this theme: “Inner Authority does not emerge from us, but from Spirit within,” and “beneath all our ego desires — for importance, fortune, power, and possessions — is a hunger for our Creator.”

Each chapter ends with reflection questions and spiritual steps, which would be very useful in an individual or group study. This book taught me more about Thurman, one of the most important and yet less-known leaders of the 20th-century American church. But more than that, it made me think and feel deeply about the different aspects of Thurman’s doctrine, and how being a holy child of God plays out in my life. I hope many read this book and have the same experience.

Marcia Hotchkiss is program director for the Abbey on Lovers Lane, Dallas (abbeyonlovers.org).


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