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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story


Howard Thurman is a figure who refuses to be neatly categorized. That was one main takeaway from the screening and discussion of the documentary, Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story, hosted by the Boisi Center on February 7, 2019. An influential theologian, teacher, and mystic, Thurman also served as theological and ideological inspiration for the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement, notably those of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Defying categorization further, Thurman held a great interest in mystic theology, as well as mysticism’s role in political and social movements. His seminal text, Jesus and the Disinherited, focuses on the ways Jesus spoke truth to the power of the authorities of his time, showing how Jesus can be identified closely with those disinherited by society. In addition to profiling Thurman, the film included interviews with many civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Congressman John Lewis, and Vernon E Jordan, Jr.  Following the screening, the film’s director, Martin Doblmeier, and Boston College assistant professor of theology, Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones, discussed the making of the documentary. Moderated by Boisi Center director Mark Massa, S.J., the discussion opened with Doblmeier remarking that he found Thurman to be one of the most important public faith figures of the 20th century, and thought Thurman fit well alongside other religious figures he has profiled on film, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr. Adkins-Jones shared that she often teaches Jesus and the Disinherited, discussing how she sees Thurman as a inspirational figure. Both Doblmeier and Adkins-Jones discussed Thurman's unconventional role in the civil rights movement: Thurman stayed absent from the front lines of physical protests, something he often caught criticism for. Instead of focusing on his absence, Doblmeier and Adkins-Jones argued, we should seek to understand why Thurman’s intellectual and religious inspiration had such a forceful impact, albeit in an understated way. A question and answer session followed, with audience members asking the panelists to contextualize Thurman within the wider landscape of his historical moment, as well as for ideas on how to persist in the midst of oppressive and racist events on Boston College’s campus.