Can a letter change the world? A few years ago I found some correspondence that I thought might have profoundly altered the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. , thereby redirecting the course of American and world history. And what made it more interesting is that King almost certainly was unaware of what happened. I was doing some research into the life of Howard Thurman, the great mid-20th century African American religious thinker. Thurman has never been as well-known as he should be, and if he is remembered among the general public, it is as an inspiration to Martin Luther King, Jr., which is accurate enough, but somewhat ironic given the contents of the exchange in question.
Here’s the situation. In the fall of 1953 Howard Thurman became a professor and the dean of chapel at Boston University (the first black to become dean of chapel at a mainstream university). Martin Luther King, Jr. was a student at Boston University, and by the fall of 1953 he had finished his course work for his Ph.D., so he was never Thurman’s student, though the two men knew each other (Thurman had known King since his infancy) and had some, though fairly limited contact during their time together during Thurman’s first year in Boston.
So on 1 December, 1954, just about sixty years ago, Thurman receives a letter from an old friend and college chum from Morehouse College, A.W. Dent, president of Dillard University, a historically black college in New Orleans. Dent was looking for a new dean of chapel at Dillard, and wanted to feel out Thurman about a potential candidate. “The other day I heard some good things about M. L. King, Jr., whose father is at Ebenezer at Atlanta. I understand that King after finishing Morehouse, went to Boston University where he has about completed his work for the doctorate. Do you know anything about his record, and do you think him to be the type of person into whom I should take a good look?”
Thurman replied two weeks later, as honestly as he could: “With reference to M. L. King, Jr., I know him casually. He has made a good record here in the university and I understand that he is a good preacher. I do not know anything about his experience with students. But, of course, a man has to start some time. Sue [Sue Bailey Thurman, Thurman’s wife] has had some conversations with King and is very much impressed with him.” But then Thurman goes on to suggest another candidate, another African American Ph.D. candidate at Boston University, might be a better fit for the dean of chapel position. This man would have a significant career as a preacher, theologian and dean of chapel, but he was not, of course, in subsequent renown, another Martin Luther King, Jr.
So, surely, I concluded, when I first read this exchange of letters, this changed the course of history. Dent’s original letter was sent exactly one year to the day before, on 1 December, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, setting into motion a chain of events that would result in King being selected as head of the Montgomery Improvement Association. It was this position that catapulted him within a matter of months to national leadership in the civil rights movement, and from thence on a path that made him, within a few short years, arguably, the most famous American of his generation. By the time he would have turned 60, the annual commemoration of his birthday was a national holiday. But surely all of this required King being in the right place, Montgomery, Alabama, at the right time, early December 1955, for him to discover his true vocation, which was not as an academic theologian, but a civil rights leader. What if Thurman had been effusive in his praise of King, and didn’t recommend an alternative candidate? How would history be different, if Thurman had strongly praised King on 1 December 1955?
The short answer is that the letter didn’t really change much. President Dent had been somewhat misinformed. While King had not yet finished his dissertation, he had left Boston in the fall of 1954, having been hired as the new minister at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And despite Thurman’s guarded enthusiasm, King, along with Thurman’s other candidate, did interview for the position at Dillard, and neither man was hired. It seems unlikely that King would have been tempted to leave a few months into his prestigious position at Dexter Avenue. In any event, he was not in need of a job.
There are two questions this little episode poses. First, why didn’t Thurman provide a more glowing recommendation? Was Thurman obtuse, or was King simply not that impressive? We don’t know, but Thurman clearly knew the other candidate better than King. He had been his student, and was impressed with his intellect and character. Perhaps he felt, as he implied in his response to Dent, that King, at 25, was a bit too young to become dean of chapel, and needed a deeper resume. King did not, as Thurman points out, have any experience with college students. Thurman’s favored candidate was a decade older. If Thurman did not take the full measure of the young King, perhaps it was because King still had some growing up to do. Reading the biographies of King there was relatively little indication, in December 1954, of the extraordinary career he would soon enjoy. Surely King’s career was a case of having greatness thrust upon him, and thereby realizing his destiny. For Thurman, in December 1954, King was simply one of many promising Ph.D. candidates. The two men would subsequently grow closer.
But the bigger question is whether history have been different if Martin Luther King Jr. had been in New Orleans rather than Montgomery in December 1955? I think it is reasonable to assume that, like most of the great historical accomplishments, it would have unfolded more or less along the same trajectory, with him or without him; India would have achieved its independence without Gandhi, South Africa its freedom without Mandela, and even without Einstein, someone would have discovered the principles of relativity. (Though this doesn’t apply to artistic achievements, obviously; no Shakespeare, no Hamlet.)
For some this is reason enough to argue that King’s role in the history of the civil rights movement has been exaggerated. There have been many books, gently or not so gently debunking the thesis of his centrality, arguing the “real history” of the civil rights movement, its “grass roots” essence lies elsewhere. And at the same time, the scholarship on King and his writings, parsing every word and utterance, is also flourishing. For me, these different approaches to King are ultimately complementary; the question of what the civil rights movement would have been, absent King, is ultimately a question of historical metaphysics, since what happened, happened. King’s role, neither exaggerated or minimized, needs to be studied with as much precision, and without piety, as is possible.
The ultimate significance of the letters between Thurman and Dent is the mystery of the interaction between the workings of broad historical processes and the course of an individual life. Lives can only be read retrospectively, and no one in December, 1954, least of all King himself, could have guessed what the next decade and a half would bring. When Howard Thurman, in 1979, near the end of his life, published his autobiography, he concluded it with the following words: “No one shares the secret of a life, no one enters the heart of its mystery. . . . Always we are on the outside of our story, always we are beggars who seek entrance to the kingdom of our dwelling place.”
And no one shares the secret of how a life interacts with the great social forces that surround it, and how a life is shaped and shapes those social realities. This is the great mystery of the civil rights movement, how ordinary people, from all walks of life, found themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and rose to the occasion. And in this way, perhaps, King was no different from thousands, from millions of others.
Peter Eisenstadt is the senior associate editor at the Howard Thurman Papers Project at Boston University.