Paul Harvey, distinguished professor of history and Presidential Teaching Scholar at UCCS, researches, writes and teaches in the field of American history from the 16th century to the present. He is the author of 13 books, including his most recent, “Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography,” published in 2020 by Eerdmans Publishing.
Harvey answered seven questions on his newest book, which shares the story of Howard Thurman, mentor to an entire generation of civil rights activists leading the charge for equity in the 1950s and 1960s.
Thurman was a philosopher, poet and environmentalist, the first African-American to serve as dean of a chapel at a major university, professor to Martin Luther King Jr. and by Harvey’s account, one of the most important figures in religion, race and civil rights in the 20th century.
1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
Howard Thurman was one of the most important figures in religion, race, and civil rights in the 20th century, but he is relatively unknown except to scholars and theologians. I wanted to write this biography to “introduce” him to a more general public.
Coming from a poor background and raised in African American churches and schools, Thurman (1899-1981) is one of the most important figures in terms of mentoring an entire generation who led the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1936, Thurman met with Gandhi in India, and from there brought home and transmitted the ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience. Thurman also introduced ideas of mysticism and taught a generation how to conceptualize Jesus outside of the constraints of institutional Christianity. His work “Jesus and the Disinherited,” published in 1949, was a sort of Bible for the civil rights movement. As well, Thurman was a pioneering African American environmentalist and religious “seeker,” and the first African-American to serve as dean of a chapel at a major university, Boston University.
2. How did you get the idea for your project?
I first wrote a chapter for a previous book I published featuring short vignettes of the lives of southerners who exercised influence in world affairs or culture, and in doing so discovered that there was no contemporary biography of Thurman. From there, I felt “called” to write one.
3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process?
I really began to focus more on Thurman’s ideas about how to integrate internal – we may say spiritual (in the most generic sense) – development with a life of activism and struggle. Thurman led an incredibly eventful life, full of the struggles and trials African-Americans experienced during the era of segregation, but he also developed an acute sense of the need to cultivate one’s internal compass. To me, his balance of those two makes him a unique figure in twentieth-century American religious history.
4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
Thurman stressed how, in social struggle, one cannot succumb to hating the thing or person you are struggling against, because in doing so, that thing or person exerts power over you; if you don’t, then the power resides within you instead.
Also, Thurman spoke often of his life’s philosophy of treating other people as if they already had reached the point that you hoped or expected them to reach at some point in the future, to place a crown on their head (as he put it) even when they did not yet “deserve” it. Treat them as if they already had become what, in the best of all possible worlds, they could become.
This reminded me of a principle that I learned from my graduate school advisor, Leon Litwack, from UC Berkeley, who often said, “Always respect the student, even when she/he does not show respect for you.”
5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?
I write in the mornings and evenings, saving the afternoons (when I typically have less mental energy) for other tasks requiring less mental energy – reading emails, for example.
I use the “pomodoro” method and even have it set up in my bookmarks. It is a timer that goes for 25 minutes. You write for those 25 minutes without interruption (no checking email or Facebook), and when the timer dings, you get five or 10 minutes to step outside, see if someone has responded to your tweet, or do whatever distracting thing you must do. Then you reset the time and start over. Usually after about four rounds of that or so, I will be able to write something like 750 to 1200 words, and something in that range is my daily goal.
6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?
A quote from Howard Thurman’s “A Luminous Darkness,” a book he published in the 1960s:
“The fact that 25 years of my life were spent in Florida and in Georgia has left deep scars in my spirit and has rendered me terribly sensitive to the churning abyss separating white from black. Living outside of the region, I am aware of the national span of racial prejudice and the virus of segregation that undermines the vitality of American life. Nevertheless, a strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all [people] are members of one another.”
Another passage, my words this time:
“The mystic and the movement philosopher, the poet and the preacher and prophet, the searing critic and the soothing soul – Thurman joined together in one soul qualities from diverse personalities, spirits, and intellects.”
7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?
Howard Thurman was one of Martin Luther King’s professors at Boston University. I am presently writing a biography of King, and I now have a much better idea of King’s training as a young man and seminary student than I did before, and I want to really develop that part of this new book.
UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.