Thurman was raised in segregated Daytona, Florida. Schools there went only to the seventh grade, so Thurman's family scraped together the funds to send him to high school in Jacksonville. However, at the train station, Thurman was told he had to pay extra to send his baggage. Buying the ticket had left him destitute; he had no more to ship his trunk. Penniless, the boy sat down on the steps and began to cry. Then, a stranger - a black man dressed in overalls - walked by and paid the charges. He didn't introduce himself, and Thurman never learned his name.
When Thurman wrote his autobiography, he dedicated it "to the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago."
While still a student, Thurman began working as a youth movement leader, mainly through the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He graduated from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in 1926 and began his first pastorate, at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. At Oberlin, he encountered the work of Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist Interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. Thurman eventually studied with Jones, and described this time as the watershed event of his life. However, Jones' focus was global, and Thurman thought local. "How can we manage the carking fear of the white man's power," he asked, "and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?"
In 1935-36, Thurman led a delegation of African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi. God-given faith, Gandhi proclaimed, could be used to fight the oppression of white American segregation. He challenged Thurman to rethink the idea of Christianity as a religion used by whites to keep black "in their place" with images of a white Christ and ideas of a land of milk and honey in the great beyond. Hindu principles offered Indians a basis for nonviolent opposition to British power, he said. Did Christianity have a similar power to overcome white racism?
Thurman continued thinking and writing about his conversation with Gandhi for the rest of his life. He passed on his thinking to James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman expounded on the idea of Jesus as a liberating figure, bringing new testament gospel together with non-violent resistance.
In 1944 Thurman left his position as dean at Howard University to co-found the first fully integrated, multi-cultural church in the U.S. in San Francisco, CA. The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was a revolutionary idea. Founded on the ideal of diverse community with a focus on a common faith in God, Thurman brought people of every ethnic background together to worship and work for peace. "Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you."