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Hanging on the wall in my office is the framed cover of the inaugural issue of The Brownies’ Book, a monthly periodical for Black youths created by W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1920.
The magazine – the first of its kind – includes poems and stories that speak of Black achievement and history, while also showcasing children’s writing.
Although much of American children’s literature published near the turn of the last century – and even today – filters childhood through the eyes of white children, The Brownies’ Book gave African American children a platform to explore their lives, interests and aspirations. And it reinforced what 20th-century American literature scholar Katharine Capshaw has described as Du Bois’ “faith in the ability of young people to lead the race into the future.”
Most likely inspired by The Brownies’ Book, several Black weekly newspapers went on to create their own children’s sections. While the children’s publishing industry may have shut out Black voices and perspectives, the editors of these periodicals sought to fill the void by celebrating them, giving kids a platform to express themselves, connect with one another and indulge their curiosities.
The cover image of that first issue of The Brownies’ Book, published in January 1920, epitomizes this effort. In it, a young Black girl stands on the tips of her toes, dressed in a ballet costume.
Already, this image represented a radically different vision of Black childhood. Children’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries very rarely focused on African Americans. The few Black children who did appear in print were often written or drawn as variations of Topsy, the enslaved young girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” who is initially considered “naughty” only to be redeemed by Eva, who plays the role of the “white savior.”
As children’s literature scholar Michelle H. Martin has noted, “children who wanted to read about black characters in children’s literature could read about buffoons, mammies, Sambos or savages,” but not about “the beauty” of Black children.
The girl on The Brownies’ Book cover offers a vastly different vision of Black childhood than the caricatures seen throughout popular culture of the time. She’s confident, excited and talented. The pages that follow feature an assortment of fiction, commentary, history and news for young readers that honors and extols Black identity.
One of the most compelling recurring sections is titled “The Jury,” which features children’s letters to the editor. In the magazine’s first issue, a boy named Franklin writes to ask about “things colored boys can work at when they grow up.” Eleanor wants the editor to recommend “some books on the Negro” so that she “can learn more about [her] race.” And a 15-year-old girl inquires about possible funding sources so that she can attend a boarding school that accepts African American students.
The Brownies’ Book had a relatively short run – 24 issues from January 1920 to December 1921. But it nonetheless seems to have encouraged a number of other Black newspapers to launch children’s sections in the early 1920s. The Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore’s Afro-American and the Journal and Guide, published in Norfolk, Virginia, each experimented with children’s sections.
But by far the most successful effort was that of the Chicago Defender, which would launch a periodical section for Black youths that ran for decades.
The Chicago Defender was perhaps the most influential Black newspaper of the 20th century. Its readership extended across the United States, and it helped spur the Great Migration, a time during which millions of African Americans left the South, by promoting job opportunities in Northern industrial cities like Chicago. Roi Ottley, biographer of Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott, wrote that only the Bible was more significant to Black Americans during the first half of the 20th century.
In 1921, the Chicago Defender started publishing a section called the Defender Junior, run by a fictional editor named Bud Billiken. Billiken was really a 10-year-old boy named Willard Motley, who later became a noted novelist, though sometimes the paper’s adult editors wrote under Billiken moniker. In his first column, Billiken tells readers that he wants to fill “this column with sayings and doings of we little folks,” and implores them to submit their poems, questions and opinions.
Young readers could become members of the Bud Billiken Club by mailing in a form with their name, but they could also mail in letters and poetry as a way to correspond with their fellow Billikens. In June 1921, a girl named Ruth McBride of Oak Hill, Alabama, submitted the following letter to Bud:
“As I was reading the Chicago Defender a lovely paper of our Race, I came across some beautiful poems written by some of the members of your club. It filled my heart with joy to read such sweet poems. I am a little girl 9 years old, and I wish to join your club. If there is any space for me. I go to school and am in the fifth grade. My mother gets the Defender every week. Here is a poem I am sending:
Down in the sunny South, where I was born, Where beautiful flowers are adoring, The daisies white and the purple lily. This is where the land is hilly."
In July 1921, Juanita Johnson of Washington, D.C., sent the Defender Junior her poem:
"When you are lonely and don’t know what to do, When you must admit that you are feeling blue, Take your pen in hand, my dear child, I entreat, And write the B.B. Club something nice and sweet. Your blues will depart, I’ll surely guarantee. You’ll cheer up at once, for so it is with me."
Black children could find – or at least attempt to find – their voices on the pages of these periodicals. For Bud Billiken, there was no greater urgency. In his introduction to the April 23, 1921, edition, he tells the story of a fly that “sat on the axle of a chariot wheel and said, ‘What a dust I do make.’”
“The fly imagines that he is causing the wheel to go around,” Billiken continues. “Let us not be like the fly, thinking we are doing something when really we only move as the world moves us.”
He concludes by writing, “The world would move on if we were not in it. This paper would be published just the same without our space. Let us make the world know that we are living and helping to make the noise and dust.”
The Defender Junior proved popular – so popular that the newspaper launched the Bud Billiken Parade in 1929 in Chicago’s South Side. By midcentury, the annual parade had become one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in the U.S., attracting national figures such as Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali. In 2020, the beloved event was canceled for the first time in 91 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Brownies’ Book, the Defender Junior and the children’s sections of other African American weeklies gave Black children a space to tell their stories, express their anxieties and assert their ambitions.
In that photograph of the ballerina on The Brownie’s Book’s first cover, I imagine her saying something similar to Bud Billiken’s appeal – “Let us make the world know that we are living.”
Or perhaps more simply, “Black lives matter.”
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Black History 365 includes originally composed music by Grammy-nominated producer Dr. Kevin “Khao” Cates, who has worked with notables such as Jay-Z, the late Nipsey Hustle, and Ludacris. This snippet of video is from a webcast about the project.
Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., remembers the shame he felt back in elementary school when his teacher announced to the class that they were going to learn about Black history and then started with slavery. He said he wanted to hide under the table. But later when he returned home that night, he also remembers the impact his parents had on his spirit when they explained that African Americans are descendants of ancient kings and queens. Dr. Milton and his partner, Dr. Joel Freeman, want other children to have that same impactful, eye-opening experience about Black history and that’s why they created the Black History 365 education curriculum.
“We want to give the students this whole experience about the Moors, the hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture, all these different aspects how the civilizations began throughout ancient Africa,” said Dr. Freeman, who has included his personal photo collection of artifacts from Africa in the curriculum. “So, there’s images from the collection, where I’ve had people of African descent say, ‘Wow, I almost feel like I’m in that picture. I see my ancestors. I see myself there.’”
Both Milton and Freeman have strong educational and professional bonafides to take on a mission of bringing Black history to life in an innovative and technological way that will capture the heart and spirit of a new generation. Milton served as a school superintendent for twelve years in the states of New York, Michigan, and Illinois, and he taught at several universities across the United States. He’s also published several books addressing issues related to Black parents, schools, and education. Freeman served as player development mentor and character coach for the Washington Bullets/Wizards For 20 NBA seasons. He has also worked with the Association of International Schools for Africa (AISA), traveling extensively throughout the continent of Africa and conducting a number of training events for educators, government, and business leaders. Genuine documents and artifacts from Dr. Freeman’s personal collection have been showcased in exhibitions at the United Nations, White House, and Clinton Presidential Library.
“I met Joel when I was a superintendent back in Springfield, Illinois,” said Milton, adding that a friend of his insisted that he’d have a lot to talk about with the historian, who he called a “brother, but not a brother.” Milton was perplexed. “He’s a white guy? I said, okay, a white guy with Black history. No problem. So Joel and I met each other and the rest is history. He was one of the first persons that I called to start this project,” said Milton.
When you first see the Black History 365 curriculum book, it looks like any other textbook. But take a peek inside and that’s where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The artifacts from Dr. Freeman’s collection are sprinkled throughout the beautifully designed schoolbook, which begins with a chapter on Ancient Africa and ends with George Floyd. Students can scan QR codes with their smart phones that lead to originally composed music by Grammy-nominated producer Dr. Kevin “Khao” Cates, who has worked with notables such as Jay-Z, the late Nipsey Hustle, and Ludacris. Cates has a doctorate in education and through his own educational program called Bridging Da Gap, he has produced more than 600 songs for K-12 grade levels. The music is meant to engage listeners, but the QR codes also link to relevant people and places related to the subject matter. The eBook version of the book will have music and videos embedded right in it, no WIFI needed. An app is in development, too, as a way to integrate current events.
“Everyone around the country who downloads the app will get a spritz of information every morning. And then it creates this technological ecosystem where a teacher can start a class with that,” said Dr. Freeman. “Hey guys, what did you think about what you saw this morning…at the dinner table…in the grocery store? Whatever it might be, it can be sparked with these conversations.”
That said, the opportunity to bring in conversations is already a staple in the book. The “Elephant Experience” is a sidebar area to the core content of the text. It represents an opportunity to talk about hot topics that are often not so easy to discuss. In other words, the “elephant in the room.” The co-founders wanted to provide a resource that would invite students, educators, parents, and anyone else who engages with the material to become critical thinkers, compassionate listeners, fact-based and respectful communicators, and action-oriented people with solutions.
“One of the things we wanted to do with this elephant experience is deal with topics like three fifths of the human being and reparations. What about tearing down statues? And are we in a post-racial society since we had a Black president for two terms? Did Africans sell Africans into slavery? Topics that people butt heads about or talk past each other or just unfriend each other on Facebook,” said Dr. Freeman.
The Black History 365 project has expanded beyond the talents of Dr. Milton, Dr. Freeman, and Dr. Cates. The team now includes 30 additional expert educators, trainers, and instructors. Learn more at BlackHistory365education.com.
In 1851, a concert soprano named Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield embarked on a national tour that upended America’s music scene.
In antebellum America, operatic and concert songs were very popular forms of entertainment. European concert sopranos, such as Jenny Lind and Catherine Hayes, drew huge crowds and rave reviews during their U.S. tours. Lind was so popular that baby cribs still bear her name, and you can now visit an unincorporated community called Jenny Lind, California.
Greenfield, however, was different. She was a former slave. And she was performing songs that a burgeoning field of American music criticism, led by John Sullivan Dwight, considered reserved for white artists. African-American artists, most 19th-century critics argued, lacked the refined cultivation of white, Eurocentric genius, and could create only simple music that lacked artistic depth. It was a prejudice that stretched as far back as Thomas Jefferson in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” and was later reinforced by minstrel shows.
But when Greenfield appeared on the scene, she shattered preexisting beliefs about artistry and race.
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, around 1820. As a girl, she was taken to Philadelphia and raised by an abolitionist.
Largely self-taught as a singer, she began her concert career in New York with the support of the Buffalo Musical Association. In Buffalo, she was saddled with the nickname “the Black Swan,” a crude attempt to play off the popularity of Jenny Lind – known as “the Swedish Nightingale” – who was wrapping up one of the most popular concert tours in American history.
In 1851, Colonel Joseph H. Wood became Greenfield’s promoter. Wood, however, was an overt racist and inhumane promoter known for creating wonderment museums in Cincinnati and Chicago that featured exhibits like the “Lilliputian King,” a boy who stood 16 inches tall. With Greenfield, he sought to replicate the success that another promoter, P.T. Barnum, had with Jenny Lind.
In a letter to Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delany, a physician, newspaper editor and Civil War hero, wrote that Wood was a fervent supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and would not admit black patrons into his museums or at Greenfield’s concerts.
For Greenfield’s African-American supporters, it was a point of huge contention throughout her career.
In antebellum America, the minstrel show was one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment. White actors in blackface exploited common stereotypes of African-Americans, grossly exaggerating their dialect, fashion, dancing and singing.
For example, the popular song “Zip Coon” portrayed African-Americans as clumsily striving for the refinement of white culture. The cover of the sheet music for “Zip Coon” shows an African-American attempting to mimic refined fashions of the day and failing. The song goes on to mock its subject, Zip Coon, as a “learned scholar,” while putting him in situations where his apparent lack of intelligence shows.
Greenfield’s performances, however, forced her critics to rethink this stereotype. The Cleveland Plain Dealer described the confusion that Greenfield caused for her audiences:
“It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’”
Critics agreed that Greenfield was a major talent. But they found it difficult to reconcile their ears with their racism. One solution was to describe her as a talented, but unpolished, singer.
For example, the New-York Daily Tribune reported that “it is hardly necessary to say that we did not expect to find an artist on the occasion. She has a fine voice but does not know how to use it.” (We see a similar phenomenon today in sports coverage, in which black athletes are often praised for their raw physical athleticism, while white athletes are praised for their game intelligence.)
By performing repertoire thought too complex for black artists – and by doing it well – Greenfield forced her white critics and audiences to reexamine their assumptions about the abilities of African-American singers.
On Thursday, March 31, 1853, Greenfield made her New York City premiere at Metropolitan Hall.
Originally built for Jenny Lind, it was one of the largest performance halls in the world. The day before the concert, the New-York Daily Tribune carried an ad that read, “Particular Notice – No colored persons can be admitted, as there has been no part of the house appropriated for them.” The ban resulted in a citywide uproar that prompted New York City’s first police commissioner, George W. Matsell, to send a large police unit to Metropolitan Hall.
Greenfield was met with laughter when she took to the stage. Several critics blamed the uncouth crowd in attendance; others wrote it off as lighthearted amusement. One report described the awkwardness of the show’s opening moments:
“She was timidly led forward to the front of the stage by a little white representative of the genus homo, who seemed afraid to touch her even with the tips of his white kids [gloves], and kept the ‘Swan’ at a respectful distance, as if she were a sort of biped hippopotamus.”
Despite the inauspicious beginning, critics agreed that her range and power were astonishing. After her American tour, a successful European tour ensued, where she was accompanied by her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Greenfield paved the way for a host of black female concert singers, from Sissieretta Jones to Audra McDonald. In 1921, the musician and music publisher Harry Pace named the first successful black-owned record company, Black Swan Records, in her honor.
But these achievements are byproducts of a much larger legacy.
In Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one of the slave children, Topsy, is taken in by a northern abolitionist, Miss Ophelia. Despite her best attempts, Ophelia can’t reform Topsy, who continues to act out and steal. When asked why she continues to behave as she does – despite the intervention of implied white goodness – Topsy replies that she’s can’t be good so long as her skin is black because her white caregivers are incapable of seeing goodness in a black body. Her only solution is to have her skin turned inside out so she can be white.
Stowe’s argument was not that we should begin skinning children. Rather, Topsy is a critique of the act of “othering” African-Americans by a dominant culture that refuses to acknowledge their full humanity.
After Greenfield’s New York concert, the New-York Daily Tribune recognized the monumental nature of Greenfield’s heroics. The paper urged her to leave America for Europe – and to stay there – the implication being that Greenfield’s home country wasn’t ready to accept the legitimacy of black artistry.
But Greenfield’s tour did more than prove to white audiences that black performers could sing as well as their European peers. Her tour challenged Americans to begin to recognize the full artistry – and, ultimately, the full humanity – of their fellow citizens.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Video Courtesy of 11Alive
RELATED: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.
The high-stakes U.S. Senate race in Georgia catapulted the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church back into the spotlight. For 135 years, the church played a vital role in the fight against racism and the civil rights movement. It was the spiritual home of the civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is now the home of the state’s first Black senator – the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at the church.
As a scholar of African American religion and Christian theology, I believe it is important to understand how the Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a seat of Black power and organizing for generations in Atlanta.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, a predominantly African American congregation, was founded in 1886, nearly 20 years after the end of the Civil War. The pastor, Rev. John Andrew Parker, served as Ebenezer’s first pastor from 1886 to 1894. Little is known about Parker and Ebenezer’s early years. But according to historian Benjamin C. Ridgeway, Parker organized the church in a small building located on Airline Avenue in Atlanta.
The name Ebenezer, meaning “stone of help,” comes from the Hebrew Bible. In the First Book of Samuel, the Israelites are said to have gathered in the town of Mizpah to offer burnt offerings to God. When their enemies, the Philistines, received notice that the Israelites were in Mizpah, they sent forces to attack them.
With God’s help, the Philistines were eventually defeated. Prophet Samuel then named a large stone “Ebenezer” to remind the Israelites of God’s intervention in their battle against the Philistine army.
As historians Roswell F. Jackson and Rosalyn M. Patterson observed in their 1989 article, “The selection of the name Ebenezer, ‘Stone of help,’ was profoundly prophetic.” In their view, Ebenezer’s name proved fitting to describe the role the church would come to have in the subsequent civil rights movement.
The Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, the maternal grandfather of King, served as second pastor from 1894 to 1931. Williams led the Ebenezer Church into the 20th century as a religious community mobilized to fight the segregationist policies plaguing the African American community in the state of Georgia.
By 1913, the church had grown from 13 to nearly 750 members. Williams developed a distinct form of the social gospel, which emphasized the importance of African Americans owning businesses and taking social action against racial and economic injustice in their local communities.
Known for his powerful preaching, impressive organizing and leadership skills, Williams led several initiatives, including boycotts against a local Atlanta newspaper, “The Georgian,” which was known for using racist language against African Americans.
In 1906, Williams led a fight to end the white primary system which prohibited African Americans from voting in the Georgia primaries. In 1917, Williams helped establish the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.
A year later, he was elected as branch president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, and, within five months of his tenure, the chapter’s membership grew to 1,400.
As religious historian Lewis Baldwin remarks in his book “The Voice of Conscience,” “Clearly, Williams used the [Ebenezer] church as a power base and rallying point for such activities, an approach that would also be used by [Martin Luther] King, Sr. and King, Jr.”
Following Williams’ death in 1931, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., Ebenezer’s assistant pastor and Williams’ son-in-law, became the church’s third pastor. During his 40-year tenure as pastor, “Daddy” King, as he was affectionately known, led Ebenezer with a mixture of evangelical faith and progressive social action.
Finding warrant for social action in the Christian scriptures, King Sr. challenged other Black churches to embrace the social gospel – a late 19th-century Protestant movement that emphasized the application of the Christian message to the social and moral concerns of society.
Moreover, King Sr. led marches and rallies to protest discriminatory and segregationist policies in the city of Atlanta, including the desegregation of the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Board of Education. In the first 15 years of King Sr.‘s pastorate at Ebenezer, church membership grew to 3,700.
Ebenezer came into the global spotlight when Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the call to join his father as co-pastor in 1960. Before then, King had pastored Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1954 to 1959.
During his tenure at Dexter Avenue, King served as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization which successfully led the Montgomery Bus Boycott from Dec. 5, 1955 to Dec. 20, 1956. In 1959, King resigned from his position as pastor at Dexter Avenue to serve alongside his father as well as serve as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is also based in Atlanta.
From the pulpit of Ebenezer, King preached some of his more memorable sermons. In one of his sermons published in a collection titled “The Strength to Love,” King describes racial prejudice as indicative of “softmindedness,” a person’s tendency to uncritically adhere to unsupportable beliefs.
In the same sermon, titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King argued, “Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings.” To overcome this, King argued that human beings must cultivate both a tough mind and a tender heart, a joining of a critical mind with a concern for fellow human beings.
This message reverberates in contemporary movements for racial equity and justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement. While many BLM members are not affiliated with any organized religion, the movement emphasizes the importance of spiritual wellness for African Americans as they fight for Black liberation.
Since its inception, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been an institution in which evangelical fervor and progressive social activism joined to foster societal change.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the spiritual home of King from hosting the annual commemorative service in honor of the slain civil rights leader, which usually draws 1,700 attendees. But attention to the church has been renewed following the election of Pastor Warnock to the U.S. Senate.
One cannot appreciate the importance of MLK Day without understanding the tradition that formed one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders.
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Video, courtesy of TIME
In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., we’ve compiled several of the stories we’ve published over the years about his life and ministry.
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For African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, retreat from social struggle was unthinkable. Martin Luther King Jr., however, learned from some important mentors how to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation.
As a historian, who has studied how figures in American history struggled with similar questions, I believe one major influence on King’s thought was the African-American minister, theologian, and mystic Howard Thurman.
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Their most serious personal encounter – the one that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come – came as a result of a tragedy.
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King wrote to Thurman to say, “I am following your advice on the question.”
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 11, 2018.