Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story won the regional EMMY Award for best Historical Documentary film in June, 2019.
The documentary Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story chronicles the extraordinary life of theologian Howard Thurman, a poet and “mystic” who used religious expression to help ignite sweeping social change. Thurman was born the grandson of slaves in segregated Daytona, Florida. Despite the circumstances of his upbringing, he went on to become one of the great spiritual and religious pioneers of the 20th century, whose words and influence continue to echo today. His landmark book, Jesus and the Disinherited, was the first to state that Jesus Christ — who was born in poverty as part of a powerless minority — lived a life that spoke directly to black Americans. In his own time, Thurman was a celebrated religious figure with profiles in major magazines such as LOOK, Ebony and others. His efforts at the height of World War II to create the nation’s first interfaith, interracial church stands as a precursor for many contemporary faith communities. And for millions today who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” Thurman’s poetry, meditations, sermons and prayers continue to be wildly popular.
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.
Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1981.
Thurman, Howard. A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Edited by Walter E. Fluker and Catherine Tumber. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Smith, Luther E. Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet. Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.
Dorrien, Gary. "True Religion, Mystical Unity, and the Disinherited: Howard Thurman and the Black Social Gospel." American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 39, no. 1 (January 2018): 74-99. DOI: 10.5406/amerjtheophil.39.1.0074
Fluker, Walter E. "Howard Thurman: Intercultural and Interreligious Leader" in Religious Leadership: A Reference Handbook. Edited by Sharon Henderson Callahan. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc, 571-78. DOI: http://dx.doi.org.proxy.bc.edu/10.4135/9781452276137.n78
Giles, Mark S. "Howard Thurman, Black Spirituality, and Critical Race Theory in Higher Education." Journal of Negro Education 79, no. 3 (2010): 354-365.
Walker, Corey D. B. "Love, blackness, imagination: Howard Thurman's vision of communitas." The South Atlantic Quarterly, 112, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 641-655. DOI: https://doi-org.proxy.bc.edu/10.1215/00382876-2345216
The Howard Thurman Papers Project at Boston University: http://www.bu.edu/htpp/.
In the News
This review of Martin Doblmeier's new documentary, Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story, from Religion News Services, declares "Thurman helped King realize that nonviolence was not just a tactic, but a lifestyle." Another RNS article argues that Thurman offers a model for bipartisan cooperation on addressing the plight of the disadvantaged and the marginalized. On February 7, filmmaker Martin Doblmeier will screen his documentary on Thurman and discuss the film alongside BC theologian Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones.