Film focuses on life, legacy of Thurman


Dr. Howard Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach.

Dr. Howard Thurman is one of Daytona Beach’s renowned sons. The renowned scholar, theologian and educator who grew up in the city.

Thurman’s story will receive national and global attention this month due to a PBS documentary that depicts his life and legacy.

“Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story’’ premiered on Feb. 8 on the World Channel. It also will be shown this month on PBS stations around the country.

The Howard Thurman Historical Home, located in Daytona Beach at 614 Whitehall St., was highlighted in the documentary, according to the filmmaker. The home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

‘A great story’

“We got to film in his historic home, which was quite inspiring. This is part of a series on people with prophetic voices with religious backgrounds who spoke with such insight and clarity to the people on the issues of their day, said Martin Doblemeier, filmmaker of Journey Films.

“Those voices still speak to us today. Howard is one of them. I think he was one of great voices of the 20th century.’’

He adds, “It’s a great story. What is important is if you read the history books on the civil rights movement, very rarely do you see the name Howard Thurman. On the other hand, when you meet the people who made the movement happen who are still alive, there is no question that Howard Thurman influenced them all.”

Inspired King, others

Doblmeier is an award-winner filmmaker and owner and creator of Journey Films, a company that specializes in religion, faith and spirituality. Journey Films has produced more than 30 documentary films that have aired on PBS, ABC, NBC, BBC, and other broadcast outlets around the world.

“Backs Against the Wall: A Howard Thurman Story’’ details the life of one of the most important religious figures of the 20th century.

Thurman laid the spiritual foundation of the civil rights movement and inspired many of its leaders, including his close friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Also featured in the film are scholars, theologians and civil rights pioneers such as Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Vernon Jordan.

Didn’t seek attention

Thurman is often a forgotten member in the civil rights movement but his influence is there.

“Thurman was one of the most powerful and influential voices behind the civil rights movement. He had a personality where he didn’t want to draw attention to himself,’’ Doblmeier noted.

“The civil rights leaders that we interviewed in the film light up talking about Thurman and how important he was to them and the civil rights movement. Thurman may not be recognized as he should because of his style of not garnering attention. He was a source of inspiration and energy for the civil rights movement.”

Mentor to King

Another aim of the documentary was to show Thurman’s influence on King.

Doblmeier stressed, “Thurman was absolutely a spiritual mentor to Dr. King that alone is enough to make a movie about. When you see and listen to King’s conviction and force that he spoke with, where did he get that from?

“Some people influenced him, but a lot of that inspiration came from meetings, writings and preaching from Howard Thurman.’’

The early years

The grandson of slaves, Thurman was born on Nov. 18, 1899. He was the first to graduate from the eighth grade in Daytona Beach.

He lived in the Daytona Beach home until he moved to Jacksonville to attend the Florida Academy Baptist High School, the closest high school available to Black Daytonans in the 1910s.

“He spoke a lot about his early years in his autobiography. He spoke of the segregation and racism there that he experienced firsthand and had a profound influence on him. He said Daytona was a little more tolerant but still had its racial injustice, racial violence and segregation,” Doblmeier noted.

Daytona to D.C.

Thurman received his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1923 and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1925 after graduating from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary.

In 1928, he returned to Atlanta to serve as director of religious life and professor of theology at Morehouse and Spelman colleges, and in 1932 was appointed dean of Rankin Chapel and professor of systematic theology at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Gandhi influence

In the mid-1930s, he was with a delegation that traveled to India where he was the first African American invited to India to meet Mohandas Gandhi.

“Another big aspect that Thurman brought to the civil rights movement was the fundamental principles of non-violent resistance, which he learned
from Gandhi and brought back to America,” added Doblmeier.

Thurman also helped launch the Fellowship Church for All People in San Francisco, considered to be the nation’s first interracial and multicultural church community back in 1944. The church added theater and dance in its worship. Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune were at-large members.

Died in 1981

In all of his teachings, Thurman was determined to break down what he saw as the artificial walls between races, nationalities and denominations.  

He went on to serve as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (1953– 1965), eventually retiring to San Francisco where he died on April 10, 1981.

“Backs Against the Wall: A Howard Thurman Story’’ is produced by Journey Films, Inc. and is a presentation of Maryland Public Television. Major funding was provided by the Lilly Endowment. 


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