Howard Thurman Conference

April 26, 2018

Upper House hosted a conference on the life and work of Howard Thurman on April 26 & 27, 2018. Howard Thurman was a philosopher and theologian who helped shape the twentieth century by capturing the imaginations of educational, political, ecclesial, and judicial leaders. In his role as a teacher and mentor, Thurman’s vision of social justice, rooted in the requirements of reconciliation and love, was one of the pillars of the Civil Rights movement. As an advisor to the likes of James Farmer, Vernon Jordan, and Martin Luther King Jr., he worked in search of common ground by deepening relationships and promoting non-violent political action in the face of stark social, racial, and class divisions.

Today, Thurman’s work is as relevant as ever. But awareness of his legacy wanes at a time when his compelling thoughts and commanding voice are needed. Given the philosophical and contemplative dimension of his writing, we could surmise that shrinking attention spans and impatient social habits are to blame for this unfortunate trend. Or we might wonder if Thurman’s status as a minority contributes to inexplicable omissions of his writing in seminaries, religious studies programs, and history departments.

While both explanations have merit, Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber suggest three equally persuasive possibilities: “Many students of African-American history view him as a vague mystic.” Others saw him as a conciliatory “integrationist who did not grasp the realities of institutional power and cultural estrangement.” Still, others were attracted to “his intercultural liturgical experimentation, [and] his pacifism,” but “often without reckoning with the historical foundations and tragic dimension of his thought, or its [very theological] relationship to politics.” Whatever the case may be, the result is a lack of exposure to a critical figure in American thought and civil transformation.

Dr. Luther E. Smith Jr.’s current research focuses on the writings and correspondence of Howard Thurman, advocacy on behalf of children, and spirituality of hope. Dr. Smith is an ordained elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 2009, Dr. Smith received the Phillips School of Theology “Bishops Thomas Hoyt and Paul Stewart Institutional Ministry Award for Outstanding Service to the Ministry of Academics.” In 2010, he was the recipient of Emory University’s “2010 Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award,” which is given “in recognition of the important role of classroom teaching in classroom teaching in collegiate and graduate education.”