Howard Thurman
Howard Thurman (Photo by Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

A portrait of an influential African-American theologian, preacher, writer and civil rights leader will be seen in “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story,” a documentary for Black History Month by award-winning filmmaker Martin Doblmeier premiering this weekend.

The film explores the life of Thurman, the man who inspired Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan and others. (Thank you to Mary Lugo for providing details of this movie.)

“Backs Against the Wall” premieres on public television stations throughout the month of February.

The documentary will also screen in D.C. on Feb. 25 at the Landmark E Street Cinema, sponsored by the National Museum of African American History and Wesley Theological Seminary, with a panel discussion to follow. Tickets are free. Call Mary Lugo at CaraMar Inc. at 770-623-8190.

The documentary 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 Rep. John Lewis, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Vernon Jordan and more.

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 nonviolent resistance movement could take on global significance. When Thurman returned to America, his writings and speeches planted the early seeds for the nonviolent civil rights movement.

“Thurman helped establish the philosophical framework of how to struggle,” Jackson said. “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.

Doblmeier, the creator of dozens of award-winning films on faith, will be my featured radio show guest Friday, Feb. 15 at 6 p.m.

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

Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website,, email or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.

Lyndia Grant

A seasoned radio talk show host, national newspaper columnist, and major special events manager, Lyndia is a change agent. Those who experience hearing messages by this powerhouse speaker are changed forever!

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