The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman

Volume 3: The Bold Adventure, September 1943–May 1949

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Editor(s): 
Walter Earl Fluker
  • Columbia, SC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , October
     2015.
     456 pages.
     $59.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611175417.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The intellectual contributions of the third edited volume of The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman (2015) are immense. The editors have successfully gathered, organized, and introduced a broad range of materials related to Howard Thurman's involvement with the Fellowship Church for All Peoples in San Francisco from September 1943 to May 1949. The volume contains a variety of sources, including letters, essays, sermons, journal entries, speeches, and magazine articles. Given that the most influential accounts of Thurman's life and ministry tend to be autobiographical (liv), the present work succeeds in presenting materials which do not rely on Thurman's often well-polished narrative accounts. The plurality of voices on offer—like those of Alfred G. Fisk and Albert Cleage—adds complexity and detail. In this way, readers are given materials with which to draw more nuanced perspectives on the difficulty of trying to establish an interracial, interdenominational fellowship during the 1940s. Readers are also provided a robust number of thoroughly researched footnotes, which helpfully point to lesser known, yet vitally important persons, books, and other archival resources. The biographical essay is also an excellent resource (xvii-lii). Not only does the volume provide a sense of the conflicts between local religious leaders and neighboring political activists, it also affords a window into Thurman's own internal struggles.

One example of this emerges in Thurman's thinking about how to characterize the workings of white supremacy. In a short essay entitled "The White Problem," he remains pretty consistent in thinking that white supremacy is the offspring of fear and ignorance (28). But sometimes Thurman vacillates between his emphasis on strategies of separation and the "will to segregation" on the one hand, and his accenting how, at least globally speaking, a small white "minority . . . dominates all the other peoples of the earth" on the other hand (28). This is no small distinction, especially when considering the sort of political and moral strategies that are required to combat the terrible realities wrought by racialized "pride, arrogance, and exploitation" (28). If one thinks that fear and ignorance are the primary culprits, which get deepened by ongoing practices of segregation, then one likely response is the introduction of racially-integrated spiritual (and educational) spaces as a means of remedying the situation. Thurman's belief in the importance of creating moments of contact across racial barriers evinces some version of this view, one that emerges as central to the mission and character of Fellowship Church.     

But if one tends to think of racial and economic injustice in terms of a collective, institutional, and often personal will to dominate persons of color and the poor, as Thurman sometimes does, then more radical strategies would seem to be in order. The promises of integration—religious, political, and otherwise—aren't immediately obvious. One might even think that particular kinds of violence might be encouraged if ventures in integration are too hastily undertaken. At times, Thurman could be of this mind as well. This is why he argued against keeping Fellowship Church in a primarily black neighborhood, fearing that the church would soon become all black, or that the white persons who attended would view the church as a place for racial charity (xxix, 85). He knew that many well-meaning whites were helplessly unable to conceive of themselves in non-supremacist terms. He worried that many would see themselves as already possessing something to give and offer black people.

Such a view lay at the heart of Thurman's critique of white Christianity: that it largely took as its starting point the perspectives and interests of those already in power, not the realities of the disinherited. The redemptive vitality of Christianity, Thurman argued, lay in its capacity to "resolve racial prejudice, notions of white supremacy and class conflict" (28). But this raises a number of questions about the very terms upon which an interracial church was to be responsibly pursued. It also raises questions about the desirability of refusing to be directly associated with organized resistance in a context of overwhelming economic and political injustice. The present volume reveals the urgency of these questions in Thurman's ministry with new specificity.

If the collection falls short, it does so in its tendency to defer to Thurman's own interpretation of events. Each entry is preceded by introductory paragraphs furnished by the editors. While helpful in providing context, these remarks also have the unintended effect of priming the reader to engage each selection in the way editors suggest.  At times, the editorial remarks can adopt Thurman's perspective about particular undertakings and disagreements. Some of the introductions retain a kind of autobiographical texture, even though the editors rightly point to the limitations of Thurman's own renderings (liv).  Critically engaging each document with the assistance of the editorial remarks—but also sufficient distance—requires care. There are lively debates to be had about the extent to which Thurman's interlocutors might have disagreed with him and whether those disagreements were in principle legitimate or even morally instructive for Thurman's own cause.  

Thurman was committed to bold adventure alongside daring experimentalism.  The editors of this wonderfully assembled volume invite us to experiment even with our interpretations of the materials they provide.  The volume deepens our understanding of Howard Thurman and Fellowship Church, as well as our engagement with American religious and political history more generally, and African American religious and political thought in particular.  This is a must read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Clifton L. Granby, PhD, Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Earl Fluker is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership and the senior editor and director of the Howard Thurman Papers Project at Boston University. He is author ofEthical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community and They Looked for a City: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideal of Community in Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. and coeditor with Catherine Tumber of A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life.

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