Howard Thurman is far from a household name in the United States, but without him there may never have been a Martin Luther King Jr., a Jesse Jackson or a Vernon Jordan _ at least as the public knows them.
King and other civil rights activists served on the front lines during the heyday of the civil rights era. Behind the scenes, it was Thurman's preaching and writings that sustained them through some of their bleakest hours.
That is one of the messages directors of a massive project at Colgate Rochester Divinity School here hope to convey as they organize tens of thousands of unpublished documents relating to Thurman's life _ including some 1,000 sermons _ into a five-volume collection, plus a video and oral history.
"He wasn't on the front line leading boycotts and marching," said Catherine Tumber, director of the project. "He knew the civil rights leaders. He ministered to their souls. That's why we call him the pastoral leader of the civil rights movement."
Thurman, who died in 1981 at age 81, received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1926 from what was then Rochester Theological Seminary. From 1953-65, he served as professor at Boston University and as dean of Marsh Chapel, the first African-American to be appointed dean at a white university in the United States.
King was said to have carried with him at all times the best-known of Thurman's 21 books, Jesus and the Disinherited, which taught that finding freedom in the outside world is impossible without first finding freedom in oneself.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson once called Thurman "a teacher of teachers, a leader of leaders, a preacher of preachers" and said it was "no small wonder" that he and other civil rights leaders sat at Thurman's feet.
"We knew it was a blessing to give this prophet a glass of water or to touch the hem of his garment," Jackson said.
The Rev. Walter Earl Fluker, editor of the project and dean of black church studies at Colgate Rochester, said he believes the project, funded through grants totaling $480,000, is in part responsible for what he termed a "whole new renaissance of Thurman."
He noted that magazines such as Sojourners and Creation Spirituality have recently done substantial articles on Thurman and said students seem to be asking more and more questions about Thurman, who was named one of the 12 greatest preachers of the century by Life magazine.
"We have unearthed works of a major American thinker and theologian," Fluker said. He calls Thurman the "flip side" of King because Thurman interpreted the interior, individual life, while King's crusade for civil rights made him one of the most visible personalities of the 1960s.
"With Thurman, there was no political or social discourse without the "you,'
" Fluker said. "Instead of a frontal attack, Thurman decided to go deep. The process of individuation is the very bedrock of any liberty movement."
"I think people are looking for some new way of how to come to terms with a legacy of racism in this country," Tumber said. "There has been an impasse for a long time now since the models developed by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and others _ integrationist and black nationalism."
"Some of Thurman's greatest work is around what he calls the anatomy of violence," Fluker said. "He says violence begins with fear, deception and hatred. That's a spiraling effect which produces "hate walking on earth,' which is violence, and it can only be combated through love.
"Of course, his understanding of love is far more than any sentimental understanding of love. It is love wedded to what Gandhi and King were trying to do with non-violent resistance." Indeed, Thurman traveled to India in 1955 and met with Gandhi.
Colgate's project, now in its third year, was originally expected to involve about 100,000 of Thurman's papers. But that figure has been upped to 150,000 unpublished or little-known works. The first volume in the series is scheduled for publication in 1995.
Thurman was trained in the Baptist tradition and was known as a Christian mystic and seeker of racial and religious harmony. He became dean of Rankin Chapel at Washington's Howard University, a historically black school, in 1932.
He co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, which claims to be the first interracial, interdenominational church in the country, and was pastor there from 1943-53.
He also was honorary canon of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
In addition to teaching at Howard, Thurman taught at two other historic black institutions, Morehouse College and Spelman College, both in Atlanta.
Initial funding for the project came through a $200,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment. Since then, grants totaling $280,000 have come from the Pew Charitable Trusts; the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration; and the Louisville Institute for the Study of Protestantism and American Culture.