Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story
Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story explores the extraordinary life and legacy of one of the most important religious figures of the 20th century, Howard Thurman. Born the grandson of slaves, Thurman became a “spiritual foundation” for the Civil Rights Movement, inspiring many of its leaders — including Martin Luther King, Jr, Jesse Jackson and Congressman John Lewis.
We always hear about the leaders of America’s Civil Rights movement, particularly during February, when it’s Black History Month. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Congressman John Lewis are the more prominent figures. One you don’t hear much about was a vital part.
That’s what Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story endeavors to correct. Howard Thurman (1899-1981) wasn’t on the front lines of the battle — a stance that resulted in his being criticized — but he was one of the backbones of the movement. A grandson of slaves, Thurman was a spiritual mentor to King and the “moral anchor” for civil rights. “A saint of the movement,” Lewis called him.
Sometimes, those who criticize Christianity are dismissed as heretics or unbelievers. Thurman, often referred to as a mystic, was anything but. He resisted titles like “theologian,” but he knew the Bible didn’t endorse the way that supremacists interpreted it to support racism. He once said, “Segregation gives rise to the immoral exercise of the power of the strong over the weak.”
He was deeply influenced by his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who instilled in him that just because White people sat in places of power and drank from better water fountains didn’t mean that they were better than him. That, in turn, influenced much of his theology. He wanted answers for people, so that they’d be able to answer the question, “What do you do when your back is against the wall?” That’s the position many minorities, even to this day, still struggle to answer.
That led him to write “Jesus and the Disinherited,” perhaps his best-known work, a 1949 book that King and Jackson carried with them wherever they went. Much of King’s stance on nonviolent resistance could be attributed to Thurman’s teaching. At first, it was considered a tactic of the Civil Rights movement — a way to win the battle — but it rang so true that it became so much more than that. It became a lifestyle. Thurman learned much about it by visiting with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s, when King was a child.
Thurman’s teachings and influence are timeless and this documentary is well worthy of the time invested in watching it. As such, it merits the Dove-approved Seal for All Ages.