This week, we acknowledged the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday. The civil rights leader remains an icon decades after his death because of his ability to lead people, not to incite them but to move them and unify them as an outspoken and courageous man out front. As a champion of nonviolent resistance against social wrongs, he was eloquent, charismatic and tenacious.
The finer points that made King such an affective leader didn’t just appear on the day he was thrust into the national spotlight. He developed them over time from seeds planted by people he encountered throughout his short life. Of those seed planters, Howard Thurman comes to mind as a remarkably inspirational force, a man whose own character was the result of a life’s worth of influences.
Thurman was a young boy living in Florida during the early 1900s when his father died. His mother was forced to find a job, and his grandmother moved in to help run the household. The formidable woman was a former slave who was determined that her grandchildren would value education and hard work. According to author Jean Burden, Thurman’s grandmother advised him, “Look up always; down never. Look forward always; backwards never. And remember, everything you get you have to work for.”
With his grandmother’s guidance, Thurman became the first black child in his town to graduate the eighth grade and attend high school. He graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian, became an ordained minister, earned a doctorate degree, became the first black dean of a major university and founded the first integrated church in the United States.
In 1935, Thurman and his wife traveled throughout India to speak on behalf of a Christian foundation, and they broke from their schedule to meet with Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi was well aware of segregation and bigotry in the U.S., issues he was working to overcome in his own country, and was eager to meet with an American counterpart.
The two men discussed the importance of nonviolent resistance, a principle they were both known for championing, and Thurman returned to the States to preach and teach it as an affective method for social change. In fact, he has been called the “architect” of the nonviolence movement; and under his leadership, Morehouse College became somewhat of a testing ground for its acting out.
It was not a chance meeting that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. and Therman together. King’s father had been a classmate of Thurman’s at Morehouse, and the man became a family friend and mentor long before the younger King would emerge as the face and voice of the civil rights movement. And it’s said that King always carried with him a well-read copy of one of Thurman’s books, “Jesus and The Disinherited,” a book that had become a manual of sorts for social change, a guide for people who, as Thurman described, lived “with their backs against the wall.”
Thurman boldly passed on the faith that guided him, his principles that were buoyed by the likes of Gandhi and even the lessons he learned from his grandmother. Like any great teacher, he shared the sum of his life experiences, not as the grand public leader himself but as one of the falling dominoes of influence that would help define the man out front.
We like leaders. We like to applaud them and emulate them, give them pages in our history books and days on our calendars to acknowledge their contributions to society. But we might be too selective in our definition of what makes for a pedestal-worthy figure. It may not always be the one leading the march that deserves all of the praise. It could be the one who helped shape that man has earned a share of the glory. It could be the mentor is just as important as the one with the national holiday.
Thurman said, “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Coming alive makes for a good leader. King demonstrated that; and Thurman planted the seed like a hero, always looking up, always looking forward. The world most definitely needs more leaders and heroes like him.