The Common Good
December 2008

Speaking of Change

by Ronald Williamson | December 2008

How a Howard Thurman lecture series has transformed a university -- and much more.

IT MIGHT SEEM UNLIKELY that a social justice program would flourish at a predominately white school in a region where racial divides are as common as Confederate battle flags. But extraordinary changes have occurred at Stetson University since the revolutionary thoughts of a black minister began to be implemented on campus and in the surrounding town of DeLand, Florida.

For more than a decade, a steady stream of poets, historians, business leaders, musicians, and significant figures from the civil rights era has flowed through Stetson’s campus as part of the Howard Thurman Program. In front of students, faculty, and townsfolk, speakers recount their days as freedom riders and their participation in boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. Others speak of slum colonialism in the 21st century, the fight for quality health care for minorities, as well as for decent housing and cultural freedoms. Still others have forged laws in Congress, negotiated prisoner releases in the Middle East, and helped South African refugees get an education. All challenge their audiences to seek solutions to issues of poverty, racism, justice, and social change.

The speakers come to this 126-year-old university because of the life and work of Howard Thurman, a theologian, professor, author, and mentor who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and many other African-American leaders in the mid-20th century asthey founded and participated in the civil rights movement. Thurman is often considered the spiritual architect of this social revolution that forever changed lives in the United States.

Born in 1900, Thurman grew up in a segregated society, but the values instilled in him as he read the Bible to his grandmother, a former slave, led him beyond the restrictions of race to a possible world of right and justice. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, was ordained, and became a professor of Christian theology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1944, he helped found the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the nation’s first interracial, interdenominational church.

In 1953 Thurman became the first black chaplain of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and Life magazine named him one of the 12 greatest preachers of the 20th century. His best-known of some 20 books, Jesus and the Disinherited, was published in 1949 and outlined a philosophy of nonviolence that was embraced by the modern civil rights movement as it swelled to topple an unjust system.

In 1981, the year Thurman died, one of his disciples—Jefferson Rogers—helped purchase Thurman’s childhood home in Daytona Beach, which is near Stetson’s campus, with plans to restore it as a place to further Thurman’s teachings. A longtime pastor, Rogers was an early leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurman.

ROGERS’ DREAM BECAME a reality in 1996, when Stetson established the Howard Thurman Program. As director, Rogers has invited a broad range of national and international activists and scholars to speak, visit classes, or hold workshops to encourage bridging intellectual work in the classroom to the practical work of advancing justice in the world.

Kwame Ture, known in the 1960s as firebrand Stokely Carmichael, spoke a year before his death in 1998. Diane Nash, a civil rights strategist of the 1960s who was jailed dozens of times in the South and sent to prison in Mississippi, also offered her wisdom. Chinese-American jazz musician Fred Ho played an Afro-Asian medley, and historian and poet Julius Thompson discussed the complex struggle to overcome oppression in America.

Former surgeon Ray Hammond spoke, as did former Fisk University president Walter Leonard, jazz guitarist Nathen Page, Rabbi Herbert M. Baumgard, filmmaker John L. Jackson Jr., and urban planner Flores Forbes, once a follower of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton. Fred Shuttlesworth, who survived a dynamite assassination attempt in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1956, offered his views, as did Bernice Powell Jackson, president of the North American Region of the World Council of Churches.

Jackson challenged listeners to question whether their own personal actions are right and just.

“A lot of Thurman’s writings have to do with how you decide what is right. It’s not just about going to church on Sunday, but what you do the rest of the time,” she said. “It doesn’t matter which door you go through to do the work as people of faith, but it is important to go through the door.”

Thurman’s vision of spirituality fits what human beings ought to be—not necessarily what they are, said Rogers. “Dr. Thurman would say there are things that draw people together more than divide them” and while all people need to hear Thurman’s teachings, Rogers says white people have so much more to learn about humanitarian existence than black people. There is great power in hearing about racism from those who have experienced it, he said.

THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT of the lectures is incalculable, said Stetson University President Douglas Lee. They have transformed the campus—as well as DeLand. School curriculum changed as professors incorporated speakers and issues into coursework. When social justice becomes part of the curriculum, it cannot be contained on campus, Lee said, because another Thurman principle comes into play: “If you are going to transform society, you must have local grassroots initiatives.”

Stetson’s initiatives fell primarily on Spring Hill, a neighborhood less than two miles from campus that Ranjini Thaver, economics department chair, said was “invisible to the minds and hearts of our affluent students.” It was, said Lee, “clearly disinherited” and politically marginalized. Nearly half the households in Spring Hill exist below the poverty level, four times the rate in surrounding communities. Build­ings are substandard and many are without plumbing. There are high levels of unemployment, low levels of education, and almost no businesses.

Thaver and others developed a “humane economics” effort, a dynamic approach to alleviating poverty based on the principle that the poor are no less entrepreneurial than the affluent but lack access to conventional credit. Professors and students helped interested residents create plans for a restaurant and for a lawn-care business, and then made small loans to them based not on collateral but on trust. Business development workshops and other support services were offered.

At the same time, college courses on poverty, microcredit, and economic empowerment were created. “Essentially, our program applies the mission of the Howard Thurman Program in a socio-economic setting. It is practical, but also contributes to changes in academic mindsets,” said Thaver.

The microloan program was one of several Stetson-based efforts, including home improvement and neighborhood beautification projects, tutoring programs for children, money management classes, help with tax returns, and other mutually beneficial programs. The historic barrier of racial mistrust, Lee said, is deeply ingrained, but sincere and sustained cooperation has made a visible difference.

One of the greatest differences isn’t really visible, said Gina Hickman, a lifelong Spring Hill resident. Stetson’s steady presence and deep relationships have changed the way she and her neighbors feel about white middle-class educated students, just as it changed the way students feel. “It breaks the stereotypes,” she said. “They find out that poor people are just normal people like anyone else, they have issues like anyone else.” Students and professors see real problems and real people, she said. “It’s not about fiction. It’s about real-life struggles for poor people, for homeless people.”

The need for change highlighted by the Thurman Program prompted a fundamental shift in D. Gregory Sapp’s teaching. The religious studies professor said he no longer works to develop well-educated humans to fulfill some niche in life. Instead, he works to prepare students to become active, valuable community members who work to improve life for everyone. “I have come to see education at the college level not as primarily learning content or even as learning how to learn, but learning how to be,” he said. “To be means working to make one’s community a better place for everyone in the community—not just those who look, think, and act like we do.” He tries to motivate students to ensure that all people are treated fairly and to work against systemic injustices perpetuated by those who hold power.

One of the biggest challenges Lee faced in the program’s early days was taking heat from university supporters because of some of the controversial voices Rogers invited to speak. “Some of our trustees called when we brought Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael to campus. They didn’t ask for my resignation, but it was a factor in one person’s resignation from the board of trustees,” he said.

A high point for Lee came after a few years of the Thurman Program, when he experienced a moment of self-realization. “I began to see that I am part of this problem [of systemic injustice]. When it dawned on me that Stetson was part of the problem and I was part of the problem, then I really began to understand.”

Although the school’s self-image was one of progressive attitudes and actions, a look around campus for minority leaders and professors showed that the true situation was less than progressive, he said. There were few blacks, women, and other minorities in leadership roles. And even though Stetson was the first private university in Florida to integrate, in 1962, 20 years later the student body was still 95 percent white: “What we were doing didn’t align with what we were talking about.” The realization embarrassed him, he admitted, but it was a major step. “Now what we talk about aligns with what we are doing,” he said. Today, a quarter of Stetson’s 3,700 students are African-American, Asian, and other ethnicities.

The future of Stetson’s Thurman Program is bright. The philosophies of the African-American boy from Daytona Beach who grew up to be a force in American civil rights have permeated the classroom, the community, and the lives of far too many people to be forgotten.

“It has served as the catalyst to helping us understand what we needed to do,” said Lee. “It’s now a part of the institution’s soul, and it’s not going to stop. There will always be disinherited people in the world that need to be enabled to be free.”

Ronald Williamson has worked since 1974 as a writer and editor for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. He has won numerous regional, state, and national writing awards.

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