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Howard Thurman is pioneer, mystic, scholar, poet – all the titles are his.

Many people . . . have added another: prophet

 

 

Books by Howard Thurman

Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Thurman) / Jesus and the Disinherited  (Thurman)  /

With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman / For the Inward Journey (Thurman)

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Howard Thurman

By Jean Burden

 

This month a Negro will mount the pulpit of Boston University’s Chapel to begin his tenure as dean of the Chapel, head of a six-member board of preachers, and Professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources in the School of Theology.  He is Dr. Howard Thurman, grandson of a slave, who organized The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. He will be the first of his race to occupy such a position.

Dr. Thurman has been recognized for years as one of the country’s outstanding preachers, yet this was not the reason for his appointment by President Harold C. Case. Boston University announced a new program of religion last spring: to create an interracial, interdenominational religious center not only for the campus but for the community as well. The man responsible for the development of Fellowship Church – a unique achievement in human relations, being half white and half non-white – was the natural choice for such an undertaking.

At Boston University with its 26,795 students and 16 schools and colleges Dr. Thurman can put into wider practice the principles that have been proved in Fellowship Church for the past nine years. Granted an indefinite leave of absence by his congregation, he will return to San Francisco each summer to participate in the work of the church. And young theologians from Boston University will intern at Fellowship Church, to learn at first hand how to develop churches without intercultural and interracial barriers.

Howard Thurman is pioneer, mystic, scholar, poet – all the titles are his. Many people, thinking of his ideal – the erasing of all barriers between God and man, and between man and man – have added another: prophet. The prophets of history have always been champions of the disinherited; they have always stood for justice in an unjust society. Whether as angels with the flaming sword, or quietly like Howard Thurman, they have been the advance guard for the rest of us. His friends describe him in opposites. One is conscious of his “bigness”; another calls him “handsome.” In repose his face is sad. His eyes are large and expressive, his nose finely sculptured; but it is his long, thin hands, pale-palmed, that most people remember. They are never still, gesticulating constantly.

His humor is as famous as his eloquence – the unself-conscious grin, the rollicking laughter, particularly at himself, the mischief that always seems to lurk behind his eyes. His favorite distraction from a grueling schedule is the detective story, and he travels with a suitcase crammed with the latest paper-backed editions mingled with leading tomes on religion and philosophy. 

Once he arrived so late at an evensong service where he was to give the sermon that he tossed his coat and luggage on a chair in the vestibule and went directly into the church with the presiding minister. In the middle of the service he realized that his main quotation was in a book he had left in the brief case. He returned holding in front of him, with the distaste he would have shown toward a rattlesnake, a lurid pocket-sized volume illustrated with a gory corpse. “Dr. Thurman,” he whispered, “hasn’t there been some mistake?” Thurman took one peek and dead-pan he replied, “Not at all, Doctor, you’ve just got the wrong book.”

2

Thurman has come a long way from that small two-room house in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he was born in 1900. His grandmother, who came to take care of Howard and his sisters after his father died and his other went to work, had been born a slave; she could neither read nor write. But it was Grandmother who insisted on the importance of an education above all else. By the time Howard reached the eighth grade he was working in a dry-cleaning shop to help out the family income, and reciting his lessons to an understanding principal on his lunch hour. As a result he was the first Negro child in the town to receive an eighth grade certificate from the public schools.

Grandmother allowed no time for self-satisfaction. The nearest Negro high school was in Jacksonsville, and if Howard was going to be there by September he’d better figure out a way. He figured. A cousin offered to take him in and give him one meal a day. A friend gave him a trunk with no tray, handles, or lock. One fall day Howard packed all his possessions in the trunk, roped it together, and started for the railroad station with $5 in his pocket.

Grandmother called him back to the steps. “I want to tell you something, and you remember it all your life: Look up always; down never. Look forward always; backwards never. And remember, everything you get you have to work for.”

It looked as though the advice would have to be put into action almost immediately, for the stationmaster could see no way to ship the trunk when there was nothing to attach the tag to but rope, and that was against the law. To send it by express—his only alternative—was a financial impossibility. Howard burst into tears. An old man in blue denims and bandana was sitting on the steps, watching with interest. He ambled over. “If you are trying to get out of this Godforsaken place to get an education, and the only thing that stands in your way is money for that trunk, I’ll pay the express.” He took out a rawhide money bag, counted out $3, and Howard was on his way.

School was always wonderful. He worked hard and his grades were the best. “It was the only asset I had—I looked terrible!” He learned Latin with the enthusiasm most boys apply to marbles or baseball. He studied Shakespeare and the librettos of all the operas, and memorized reams of poetry. On summer vacations he worked in a bookstore or shined shoes or janitored.

By the time he went to Morehouse College in Georgia he wanted to go into religion. “When I was born, God must have put a live coal in my heart, for I was His man and there was no escape.” At the beginning of his junior year he decided he needed to know some philosophy. The college offered nothing but logic and ethics. The only way he could manage it was to win all the cash prizes at Commencement and thereby earn enough money to go to Columbia in the summer. This he did. He lived with a friend in a small rented room in Harlem on 55 cents a day, reading Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel. And for the first time in his life he studied with white boys. “It was here,” Thurman recalls, “that I made the precious discovery that a brain is a brain, and the package doesn’t matter."

At his graduation from Morehouse he applied for admission to Andover Theological Seminary, but religion was only for Caucasians, and they turned him down. He then made application at Colgate-Rochester. They were a little better—they had a Negro quota. (Both restrictions have since been removed.) They also had a scholarship for him. He had to read fast that first year to catch up with the boys from large Eastern colleges. There were books that he read in the ten minutes between classes; others that he saved for riding across town on the streetcar; books that he read in the bathroom. He kept half a dozen going all the time. He kept notes of every reference that the professors made and went back to the library to look them up.

He was the only Negro in his class, and he graduated at the top of it. There were at least two men at Colgate-Rochester who had tremendous influences on Howard Thurman’s thinking. One was Dr. Henry Robins who taught the Philosophy and History of Religion. “It was he who first defined for me the scent that had been in my nostrils a long time: that the spiritual experience of the human race was essentially one single experience.”

The other was Dr. George Cross, Professor of Systematic Theology. “He had a greater influence on my mind than any other who ever lived. Everything about me was alive when I came into his presence. He was all stimulus and I was all response.” He called Howard into his office as he was about to graduate, and asked him about his plans for the future. Howard told him he had a small parish in Oberlin, Ohio, and was going to take graduate work on the side.

Dr. Cross approved. “Howard Thurman, you have the capacity to become one of the great original creative thinkers; to influence the religious thought of our nation, perhaps of the whole world—if you aren’t tampered with! Because you are a Negro you may be tricked into using all your valuable creativity in fighting the race question. The race question is a social question and all social questions are temporary. Suppose Jesus had used all his energies in fighting the Roman Empire? Address your mind to the timeless questions of the human spirit! You have that kind of mind.”

One more man was to shape Howard Thurman’s development. At a religious conference he saw a small book on a secondhand table. He bought it for 10 cents and sat down on the steps outside to read it. When he got up he knew he had found the person to lead him further—Dr. Rufus Jones, the great Quaker, then teaching at Haverford College. Thurman wrote, asking if he could come and study privately with him. Jones accepted him immediately, and for the next year Thurman sat at his feet, experiencing his first formal introduction to the history and study of mysticism. When he left he was under appointment to Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta, where he taught Philosophy of Religion until 1932; then he was called to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to be Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Systematic Theology.

3

The idea of an interracial church first came to Howard Thurman in 1935 on the other side of the world—Khyber Pass. On leave of absence from Howard University, he had been sent with his wife, the former Sue Bailey, as chairman of the Pilgrimage of Friendship to students of India, Burma, and Ceylon under the auspices of the World Student Christian Federation. He had spoken in 45 centers and covered 18,000 miles. “The trip caught up with us at Khyber Pass,” he remembers, “ and it was here that we weighed and sorted it out.”

Outstanding in their reflection was their audience with Gandhi in Bardoli, arranged at the latter’s invitation. “The representatives of these two great peoples must get together,” said Gandhi. “If you cannot come to me, I will take the train with my doctor and come to you.”

After breakfasting in a mango grove at dawn with Gandhi’s secretary, they drove in a model T Ford to his headquarters a few miles away. The National Party flag was fluttering from the ridgepole as the car pulled up to the dusty clearing in front of the tent, and, breaking all precedent, Gandhi himself came out and walked over to them in greeting. Following him into the tent, they sat on the floor, while Gandhi took out his silver watch and laid it in front of him. “We have three hours to talk; let us not waste a moment.”

Before the end Sue Thurman asked him, “Will you come to America and be the guest of the American Negro?”

“That is the only way I could come, but not unless I have some creative and healing thing to say to the people. Until I have found an answer to our own problem in India. I have no right to come to America and say anything.”

Then Howard Thurman asked, “What is the greatest enemy that Jesus Christ has in India?”

“Christianity,” Gandhi replied.

So, as they rested on the mountaintop, they asked themselves if they could remain in a tradition that not only permitted but fostered rules of separateness. There was no glossing over the question. They knew the picture only too well. They knew that of the 8 million Protestant Negroes in the United States less than one tenth of one percent could worship in “white” churches. And these were usually churches in such small communities that it was unsound to establish a separate church for the few Negro members. The result was that in the one place where the teachings of Jesus could be immediately put into action in the normal fellowship of neighbor loving neighbor, and where the relationship of a human being with God should take precedence over his condition of race, status, and class – here these lines of distinction were guaranteed.

At Khyber Pass, Howard Thurman decided to stay in the Christian tradition and to make it live for the weak as well as the strong – for all peoples, whatever their color, whatever their caste. He would try to atone for the slave traffickers who called themselves Christians, for the man who wrote “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and made his money selling black serfs to the “Christians” of the New World, for the nameless Englishman who called his slave vessel Jesus – and for all the ones who came after.

During the post-India years the idea of a church that would cross all lines, the genius of which would be a religious fellowship, not another settlement house, nagged at Howard Thurman’s mind. He knew the interracial idea could be successful for a limited period in a highly controlled situation, such as YMCA conferences, but could it be done in an uncontrolled situation over an unlimited period of time?

To find out the answer, he knew he would have to set down roots somewhere in a community and work at the generating of fellowship seven days a week within the context of a religious institution. Should it be tried in New York City? In Washington, D.C.? In either case it meant taking time out from his assignment at the university to become established in the community, and he didn’t have that sort of opportunity. He would have to watch and pray for a place where there was a nucleus from which he could move forward.

The nucleus was already forming – not in New York, not in Washington, but 3000 miles away in a congested street in San Francisco. It was 1943. The Japanese had been forcibly moved out; the Negroes had moved in. Faced with a highly volatile social situation, Dr. Alfred Fisk, Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State College, and a Presbyterian clergyman deeply concerned with the problem of reconciliation in this city of forty-eight different ethnic groups, decided something should be done about it.

Backed by funds from his church, he gathered around him a handful of people who believed as he did, and together they formed a “Neighborhood Church.” From the beginning it cut across all racial lines. Also, interestingly enough, it immediately attracted people from a variety of denominations, principally Quakers and Episcopalians. About thirty men and women met weekly in the living room of an old house on Post Street, recently converted to a chapel. The church had no formal membership but a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

In the fall of 1943 an important letter was sent by Dr. Fisk to A.J. Muste, secretary of the fellowship of reconciliation in New York. It asked if Mr. Muste knew of some young Negro Divinity School graduate who would like to come out to San Francisco to share in the development of this idea. Muste knew of none, but forwarded the latter to his friend Dr. Thurman, who, in his key position at Howard University, might very likely know of just the right man. In such casual ways does Fate pull problem and answer together.

In a postscript to a letter to Fisk, expressing regret that a young friend whom he had recommended had not found it possible to accept the job, Thurman wrote, “If I could wangle a leave of absence, I’d like to come myself.”

Fisk’s immediate reply was excited and incredulous. Would he really consider the job? It paid only $200 a month and Howard Thurman had a family to support.

There were four men at Howard University that President Mordecai Johnson must have known he could not keep. One was in Political Science; one in Law; a third was in Music; and the fourth in Religion: Ralph Bunche, William Hastie, Todd Duncan, and Howard Thurman. “This isn’t your year for a sabbatical, Thurman,” President Johnson warned when surprised of the plan. “You may have a leave of absence but you’ll have to take it on the cuff.”

Thurman replied in “pious” words, but with an impious twinkle in his eye, “God will take care of me.”

4

It was a small group he found waiting but their mission was huge. What they lacked in numbers and in money, they had to make up for in zeal. One of the first things they must decide was what, precisely, they were. It was much easier to see what they were not. Not Baptist, Methodist, nor Congregational. Nor anything, in fact, that had ever been conceived before. “It was my idea,” explains Thurman, "to project a church that would have a growing and creative basis of membership, rather than beginning from within the presupposition of a particular denomination.”

Another major problem was the church building itself. From the very beginning Thurman urged the small congregation to move from the Fillmore Post area. “If we don’t move, we will become a Negro church, segregated in spite of ourselves.” Many of the members were loath to leave, feeling that such a move would only be interpreted as an abandonment of the people. Thurman stuck to his guns, and finally won, as much on the obvious need for larger quarters as on his original argument. The new building was only slightly better than the first, being the Filipino Methodist Church on Pine. The Thurmans stayed on in their living quarters on Port street, sharing them now with the Japanese minister, his wife, and many of their friends who had returned. “It was an old house, where there were not only dirt and congestion but rats,” recalls the Thurmans.

Howard and Sue Thurman could stand anything for a limited length of time, but when they saw the growing bewilderment on the faces of their daughters, Olive and Anne, they knew they would have to move or risk having them turn against the whole conception.. Thurman’s leave had been extended another year. He could send his family back to Washington or buy a house in San Francisco and cut his ties with Howard University. It was a big decision, but about the time Fellowship Church moved for the second time, to the Theatre Arts Colony, the Thurmans found a house big enough not only for themselves but for all the group meetings of the church as well. They decided to stay. Olive saw it before she entered Vassar that fall on a three-year scholarship, and young Anne at last had a place to bring her friends to.

The financial support they received from the Presbyterian Church was another problem, welcome as it was in many ways. If they continued to accept it, they were in great danger of becoming a Presbyterian Mission Church. On the other hand, to throw away the $3600 a year looked like an easy way to commit suicide. How would they manage, adrift? Characteristically, the little group stuck out its collective chin and voted to become independent. The great faith this displayed was matched by Thurman’s own.

When, in the next few years, the budget was stretched to the danger point—and it was, much more often than it was not—he would accept an itinerary of speaking engagements throughout the East, making one-night stands at churches and colleges, and bringing back enough money to carry them over the next hump. His working schedule began at dawn and continued into the night, seven days a week. “It was not only driving uphill,” he remembers, “it was cutting the road out as we went without benefit of map.” Preaching, counseling, juggling, meeting with civic leaders, mothering and fathering his flock. Raising money was only part of it.

In 1949 the church again decided to do the impossible. They would buy their own building on Larkin at Vallejo. It would cost $40,000. A glance at the operating budget showed a deficit of exactly $1060, but by this time the 200 members of fellowship Church were confident they had a guardian angel. Furthermore, to enumerate the resident membership (close to 400 today) is to tell only part of the story. There was another much larger group, slightly amorphous in structure, called members-at-large. These were persons living all over the United States and as far away as Formosa, India, Japan, South Africa, Iran, and England, who retained their own denominational ties but who contributed to the financial support of the church because they believed so strongly in its cause. These crusaders (about 1200 to date, and numbering among them many persons of prominence) continue to shoulder a portion of the operating budget and a major part of the building debt.

The $40,000 was borrowed from a private endowment fund without interest, the principal to be paid back in the unbelievably short span of three years. Howard Thurman and Gene Walker, then chairman of the board of Fellowship Church, and a producer of industrial motion pictures, initiated the amazing solicitation that followed. Across the country in Philadelphia an insurance executive, Arthur U. Crosby, headed a group called “Friends of Fellowship Church,” formed for the sole purpose of raising funds. Dr. Channing Tobias and friends of Fellowship Church gave a dinner for Dr. Thurman in New York and succeeded in adding several thousand dollars to the coffers. These men, aided and abetted by nameless hundreds, performed the incredible. They raised the $40,000 in the allotted time, and all but $2500 of it came from friends and members-at-large, local and national.

Promptly on payment of this indebtedness the board took on another, the purchase of the building next door, to be used for the myriad activities that are so important a part of the church’s life. The new Fellowship Hall is a busy place. Here the choir, as polyglot as the church itself, practices weekly. Launched with a generous gift from Todd Duncan, its fusion of voices brings to each Sunday service music of high distinction. In other corners are the Liturgical Dance Choir; the Intercultural Workshop; Sunday Fellowship with lunch following the morning service; the English Hand Bell Ringers;  and the Drama group. Mental health Institutes are held twice a year, the Religious Arts Festival every June, and the Social Service Committee functions all the time. One woman remarked, “I used to be a golf widow; now I’m a church widow!”

The forum and lectures are organized by Mrs. Thurman. Sometimes there is a talk by a Negro scholar from Liberia; at other times an exhibit of wood-forms by an American artist, a concert by an Armenian on the Egyptian harp, or a program of Jewish folklore.

The Children’s Workshop in International Living is held every summer as another dimension of the Church School. Here the work goes on at a different level. One year it was a study of the American Indian, with two young Navajo girls coming all the way from New Mexico and living with Fellowship families during their stay. Other years the Workshop studied Africa, India, and Japan.

5

In his capacity as pastor, Dr. Thurman experienced countless personal indignities; the times he was refuted service in restaurants, the parish calls in apartment buildings when he was asked to use the freight elevator – these were part of the early history. Curiously enough, the church itself has never been criticized for its interracial platform. Most Christians pay lip service to such an ideal, even if they don’t care to put it into practice. But the logical conclusions thereof, the points at which such a commitment meets the environment outside of the church – these have been under attack.

The unique criticism has been that the church is too highbrow! Although Dr. Thurman claims he is no scholar, it is a safe bet that anyone else would claim it for him. His sermons puzzle some people. One of the oldest members of his San Francisco congregation took him aside one day and pleaded, “Doctor, I don’t want to change anything, buy don’t you know any little words?”

Listeners are always surprised that from this man comes no social protest in the ordinary sense. He preaches no sermons on the racial problem, on politics, or on bigotry. He attacks the mainspring of social ills, not the results as such. Being a mystic in the most practical down-to-earth sense, who lives in the world, not apart from it, Thurman has always preached on man’s encounter with a spiritual reality. Sometimes his preaching takes the form of a series of sermons, like his famous ones on Prayer.

His sermons are always basic; they deal with the eternal verities. That such lessons lived would result in world order and peace at all levels is obvious. But first things come first. There have been a few people who see things differently, who have tried to pressure him into endorsing their own political beliefs. One woman walked out on one of his sermons because she felt he wasn’t meeting the social issue squarely. But Howard Thurman knows what he is doing. He will never be a whip for any cause. His voice is powerful, compelling. He will not exhort, cajole, or pound the lectern. He will turn men to the inner Light if they will let him.

It is a radical thing to preach the kind of truth that is found acceptable to the Jew (there have been several in his congregations), to the Roman Catholic (one boy in the Fellowship choir attended Mass every Sunday morning before coming to the eleven o’clock service), to the Japanese Buddhist, the Hindu, the Quaker, and to the fugitives from all organized religion. There are two reactions to Fellowship Church that members wait to hear from newcomers. One is: “This is the church I have been looking for all my life!” And the other is: “And I’m not really religious!” Thurman defines a creed as “a bronze plaque erected at the site of a battle, signifying who won,” and dogma as “the rationalization of somebody “else’s personal religious experience.” And in so teaching his basic theme is reiterated: We are one at any level.

Everyone asks, of course, how the commitment of Fellowship Church has been expressed in the daily lives of those who profess it. It is one thing to practice brotherhood on Sunday morning, but what about Monday and Tuesday? What about the areas of human relations commonly unillumined by religious attitudes? The answer can be supplied by many members of the San Francisco congregation.

It is commonplace in this fellowship that members of one race mingle socially with members of another. They meet in each other’s homes, picnic with each other, go to concerts together, dine in public places. In the beginning this was often done awkwardly if with the best of intentions, and it was there that Dr. Thurman’s patience was seen at its most tactful. “He met us where we were, and treated us as though we were where we ought to have been. How we blush now when we remember that we played him Marion Anderson records on his first evening in our home, and talked racial problems until he must have squirmed!”

By now they have reached a point where action is implemented not only by Fellowship Church as an institution, but by their faith that this brotherhood is a part of the future.

A man and his wife, members of Fellowship Church, against neighborhood threats of violence, rented their spare room to a Negro. In a remarkably short time the excitement subsided and the newcomer was accepted without fuss. The same story was repeated when another member rented her guest cottage to a Negro social worker who became the most popular resident of an all-white neighborhood.

In Tucson the Superintendent of Public Schools, Robert D. Morrow, a member-at-large, spearheaded the desegregation of schools in that town. The Dean of Women of a large Southern university allowed Negroes to mix with whites at one of Dr, Thurman’s lectures – an unheard-of gesture. In India a member-at-large studied famine relief among the very poor of another colored race, and enlisted the help of Fellowship Church. Members gave up one meal a week, contributing its cost to the fund.

A prominent Negro in industrial relations confessed that before he became a member of Fellowship Church he suspected everybody that had a white face. Sensitized by Howard Thurman’s message, he decided to see if he could make a friend of the white man who had opposed him on every committee. He did so, and relations, human as well as industrial, took a step in a new direction.

“Dr. T’s” decision to go on to Boston was a crisis that took months to meet. Now, under the interim leadership of Dr. Dryden Phelps and for thirty years Professor and Dean of the Chapel at China Union University, a resurgence of vitality is proving that the cause of fellowship is bigger even than devotion to Dr. Thurman. Dr. Phelps put it another way:--

“Actually, the enduring quality to be tested: whether the Idea which he and this church have shared these years can now take on a kind of independent life of its own among us: send roots even deeper, expand wider, grow upwards. But we also are about to be tested as to the measure of our own continuing loyalty to the Idea, and our creative on-going capacity to make it live in our lives, and in other lives, and in this religious community. I believe God is watching, and not a few other churches.”

Howard Thurman knows he is only a small part of a single creative movement. Racial unity is only part of it. Never does he forget the total issue. What he said at the mortgage-burning ceremony is as pertinent in his new position:

“Man builds his little shelter, he raises his little wall, builds his little altar, worships his little God, organizes the resources of his little life to defend his little barrier, and he can’t do it! What we are committed to here, and what many other people in other places are committed to, is very simple – that it is possible to develop a religious fellowship that it is creative in character, so convincing in quality that it inspires the mind to multiply experiences of unity – which experiences of unity become over and over and over again more compelling than the concepts, the ways of life, the sects and the creeds that separate men. We believe that in the presence of God with His dream of order there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself.

“Wherever man has the scent of the eternal unity in his spirit, he hunts for it in his home, in his work, among his friends, in his pleasures and in all the levels of his function. It is my simple faith that this is the kind of universe that sustains that kind of adventure. And what we are fumbling towards now . . . tomorrow will be the way of life for everybody!”

Source: The Atlantic Monthly (1953)

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Howard Thurman's best known work Jesus and the Disinherited influenced King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He retired in 1965 from his position as  Professor of Spiritual Resources and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He was the first black man to occupy the post of dean at a traditionally white university.

For a period Thurman was Visiting Lecturer at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. At his retirement, he returned to San Francisco to direct the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, which provided scholarships to needy students and served as a base for his continued ministries and counsel. Many leaders of the civil rights movement, workers, students, professionals, social and community leaders visited the mystic, holy man, and saint in san Francisco. Thurman died in 1981.

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Hands on the Freedom Plow

Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

By Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan

Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, et al.

The book opens a window onto the organizing tradition of the Southern civil rights movement. That tradition, rooted in the courage and persistence of ordinary people, has been obscured by the characterization of the civil rights struggle as consisting primarily of protest marches. In rural Dawson, Ga., Carolyn Daniels housed SNCC workers organizing for voter registration, and whites retaliated by bombing her home. But at the end of a vivid depiction of this and other anti-black terrorist acts, she writes, in an apt summary of the grass-roots organizing that is the real explanation for civil rights victories, "We just kept going and going."

Organizing involved the kind of commitment and willingness to face risk that Penny Patch conveys in only a few short sentences describing covert nighttime meetings in plantation sharecropper shacks. Patch is white. But that did not lessen the fear or reduce the danger of remaining seated while poll watching in a country store as whites came in and out, giving her and her black co-worker menacing stares.

Full journalistic disclosure requires me to say that many of these women are friends and former comrades. But knowing the movement that we were all a part of also demands that I share my observation: While these pages look back, looking forward from them reveals that there are many useful lessons for today in the strength of these women.Charles E. Cobb Jr.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 30 September 2007

 

 

 

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