Howard Thurman was born in Florida in November 1899, and was raised in Daytona, primarily by his mother and grandmother. By dint of his native intelligence, determination, and ability to circumvent a system that was established to thwart black Floridians, he received a first-rate education at Morehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary and thereafter became an influential minister, much in demand before both Black and white audiences.
He was one of the first prominent Black advocates of radical nonviolence, and in 1936 met with Mahatma Gandhi in India. He had teaching positions at Morehouse and Spellman colleges and Howard University. In 1944 Thurman left his comfortable position at Howard to become pastor at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, one of the first churches in the United States organized on an interracial and interdenominational basis. In 1953 he became dean of chapel and professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources at the Boston University School of Theology.
Although he was never a front-line activist—he preferred to offer advice and spiritual counsel from behind the scenes—he inspired many future leaders of the civil rights movement, among them James Farmer, Pauli Murray, and Martin Luther King, Jr. A mystic, he was an influential proponent of the spirituality of personal exploration, and helped shape a new liberal American religiosity, increasingly untethered from the traditional Christianity of creeds and denominations.