- The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman. Volume 4: The Soundless Passion of a Single Mind, June 1949–December 1962ed. by Walter Earl Fluker et al.
From reading this volume of Howard Washington Thurman's collected papers, artfully subtitled The Soundless Passion of a Single Mind, it becomes instantly clear that this phase of Thurman's life and career was undeniably more political than one might imagine for a figure not known for his direct involvement in politics. By and large, this volume reflects Thurman's transition from pastor of the Fellowship of All Peoples Church in San Francisco, California, to the first African American dean of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University. This move marked a considerable shift in political consciousness and concerns for this visionary African American pastor, preacher, and professor. The documents in this volume suggest that the significance of becoming Boston University School of Theology's first tenured African American professor and university chaplain in 1953 had great allure for Thurman at this critical phase in his life.
Thurman's experience as a transplanted black southerner attempting to transform a venerable and predominantly white northern academic institution is quite telling. This volume reveals at least three factors of Thurman's later years. First, Thurman's sojourn in Boston during the 1950s and 1960s coincided with the nationwide ordeal of racial integration in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education(1954) decision. Within this shifting racial landscape, Thurman's employment at Boston University, as his first full immersion in a predominantly white academic institution, proved quite jarring. Though nestled in the cradle of the American Revolution and a bastion of northern liberalism, Thurman experienced numerous conflicts with the upper echelons of Boston University's administration, suggesting that he might have been blindsided by an insidious manifestation of New England racism. His repeated confrontations with the university's president and board of trustees foreshadowed many of the battles over diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism that haunt the nation's colleges and universities to this very day. Moreover, the general uneasiness that he and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, felt during their years in Boston might have presaged the deep undercurrent of white prejudice and racist animus that eventually exploded in that city by the 1970s, as chronicled in Ronald P. Formisano's Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s(Chapel Hill, 1991) and Louis P. Masur's The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America(New York, 2008).
Next, although Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. never had a formal teacher-student relationship while both were on Boston University's campus, the painstaking efforts of the volume's editors reveal that the relationship between these two was mired in missed opportunities rather than sustained mentorship. Whereas King gleaned great solace and insight from Thurman's 1949 masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, one can only speculate how rich and robust their rapport might have been if their exchanges had been more than a few brief encounters. [End Page 502]
Lastly, it is remarkable that, while the years covered in this volume were Thurman's most prolific in terms of his public output, his private writings suggest that he found this period to be his least productive. For anyone who nurtures a mythic image of Thurman as a beatific black southern mystic, this volume is extremely eye-opening, because it illustrates him experiencing frustration, doubt, and even anger about his situation. There is a bittersweet irony insofar as the bulk of Thurman's canon arose during this period of his life and career, when he appeared to be financially and institutionally stable yet spiritually discontented.
Walter Earl Fluker and the editors of this documentary project continue to provide new, revelatory insights into Thurman's life and times with the publication of Volume 4. Their work curating Thurman's collected...