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The Philosopher of the Movement: Howard Thurman in South Asia, 1935-36

Too often the story Americans assimilate about the Civil Rights Movement is that it sprang up spontaneously in the mid-1950's. A common narrative focuses on a tired Black seamstress refusing to relinquish her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus and a young Baptist minister inspired by Gandhi taking the lead of a boycott that ends up catalyzing a remaking of American society.

Rosa Parks, Dr. King, the Women's Political Council of Montgomery and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance together made the nonviolent bus boycott a success and Dr. King's leadership was critical to what eventually became a Second Reconstruction. Yet those events did not spring out of untended soil.

Twenty years earlier, the principles and concepts for a spiritually-grounded and tactically disciplined nonviolent approach to overturning the legal, political and social systems oppressing Black Americans started germinating when another brilliant young African American minister met near Mumbai with an Indian anti-colonial political organizer.

That young American minister, educator, mystic, philosopher was Howard Thurman. I first learned of Thurman when working on my historical thriller, Rumors from Shanghai. The protagonist in Rumors is a Black American man working in Asia before World War II, who possesses skills that help him perceive a possibility that others can't -- Japan's intention to strike U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor. In researching a fictional Black American, I became aware of real Black Americans who had gone after own their ambitious Asia-based endeavors.

In 2021, Dr. Quintard Taylor, historian and founder of, hosted my book launch. Interested by and supportive of my findings, he invited me to write some articles for BlackPast -- an honor. I first wrote about the four major areas of endeavor in which Black Americans were active in Asia between the World Wars:

"Black Americans venturing overseas during the interwar period are usually presented as fleeing from Jim Crow oppression east to Europe (think Josephine Baker in Paris). Less known are their experiences in crossing the Pacific. African Americans were active in Asia in the 1920s and 1930s and indeed, the strong through-line that emerges from examining their Asia-focused endeavors is their range and ambition. Whether as a means to benefit from their talents or as an avenue to share their gifts, the extent of Black Americans’ agency and success in interwar Asia merits attention."


My Black Pacific piece touched on Howard Thurman's trip to South Asia in 1935-36, which led Dr. Taylor to ask me to write a piece solely on Thurman and his Asia trip's significance to the development of the 20th century Civil Rights Movement.

The Thurman in South Asia article is now live. I hope in reading it you will take away the motivating resonance of Thurman's teachings on the latent spiritual power of the most socially oppressed among us to catalyze a generation of talent, many of whom he personally mentored. Those whom Thurman inspired and nurtured found ways to usher forth massive social, legal and economic changes, transforming American society and indeed, the world. It turns out that often reality contains so much richer a story than we are taught.

Note: Quinton Dixie's and Peter Eisenstadt's book Visions of a Better World

Howard Thurman's Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence was a vital resource in my research and if you are interested in more details on how the pilgrimage came about and was carried out, I highly recommend reading it!

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