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Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story

This film by award-winning filmmaker Martin Doblmeier creates a portrait of this influential African American theologian, preacher, writer and civil rights leader who inspired great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan and others

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By Raymond Ward

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. Born the grandson of slaves, Howard Thurman became the “spiritual foundation” for the Civil Rights Movement, inspiring many of its leaders — including his close friend Martin Luther King, Jr. Featured in the film are a host of scholars, theologians, and Civil Rights pioneers including Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan, and more. Written and directed by Martin Doblmeier, the creator of dozens of award-winning films on faith, Backs Against the Wall  premieres on the WORLD Channel on Friday, February 8, 2019, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings), and on public television stations throughout the month of February.

Born in 1899, Howard Thurman distinguished himself at an early age, becoming the first African American to graduate from the eighth grade in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. He went on to become valedictorian of his class at Morehouse College, studied at the Rochester Theological Seminary and Haverford College and would eventually be an influential teacher at Morehouse, Spelman College and Howard University.

In the mid-1930s, Thurman’s life was transformed when he was the first African American invited to India to meet Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi suggested that it would be through the African American experience that the non-violence resistance movement could take on global significance. When Thurman returned to America, his writings and speeches planted the early seeds for the non-violent Civil Rights Movement. Says Jesse Jackson, “Thurman helped establish the philosophical framework of how to struggle. They may be able to break your bones or your arms, but not your spirit.” Thurman would go on to write the influential Jesus and the Disinherited, which firmly connected the life of Jesus with the struggles of the oppressed everywhere.

Thurman is also remembered for helping launch The Fellowship Church for All People in San Francisco, considered to be the nation’s first interracial, multicultural church community. Launched in 1944, the church experimented with new forms of worship including theater and dance and counted Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune as at-large members.

In all of his teachings, Thurman was determined to break down what he saw as the artificial walls between races, nationalities and denominations.  He went on to serve as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (1953–1965), eventually retiring to San Francisco where he died in 1981.

Thurman teaching
HOWARD THURMAN, who taught at Howard University and Boston University, is photographed instructing students above. He is considered one of the most influential teachers of religious leaders. (Photo credit: Emory University)

Visit the Journey Films web site to learn more about the film, view video clips, see a list of screenings and events, and download educational materials, screening guides and more.

Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story is produced by Journey Films, Inc., and is a presentation of Maryland Public Television. Major funding provided by the Lilly Endowment.


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