Monday, January 17, 2011

Grace and Civil Rights


As our nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I want to share a story. I read it this summer in Thomas Long’s book, Preaching from Memory and Hope. The story is one of those rare moments in the early days of the civil rights movement when a white person, a southern white person, that is, actually took a public stand in support of giving black people the rights they deserve as human beings, and the rights they deserve as Americans under our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Her name is Grace Thomas, and this is her story.

Grace was the daughter of a Birmingham, Alabama, streetcar conductor and his wife. When she married in the late 1930’s, she moved to Atlanta and took a clerking job in one of the state government offices. Through her work, she developed an interest in law and politics, and she enrolled in a local law school that offered night classes.

After years of part-time study, she finally completed law school, and her family wondered what she would do with her law degree. They were shocked when Grace announced that she had decided to enter the 1954 election race for governor of Georgia. There were nine candidates for governor that year, eight men and Grace, but there was really only one issue. In the famous Brown v. the Board of Education case earlier that year, the Supreme Court had declared racially “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional and thus paved the way for integration of the public schools. Eight of the gubernatorial candidates spoke out angrily against the court’s decision. Only Grace said that she thought the decision was fair and just and ought to be welcomed by the citizenry. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls.” Not many did; she ran dead last, and her family was relieved that she had gotten this out of her system.

But she had not. Eight years later, in 1962, she ran for governor again. By then, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and her message of racial harmony was hotly controversial. She received death threats, and her family traveled with her as she campaigned, in order to provide protection and moral support. On Election Day she finished dead last again, but her campaign was a testimony to goodwill and racial tolerance.

One day in that campaign, Grace made an appearance in the small town of Louisville, Georgia. In those days, the centerpiece of the town square in Louisville was not a courthouse or a war memorial but an old slave market, a tragic and evil place where human beings had once been bought and sold like cattle or cotton or any other commodity. Grace chose the slave market as the site for her campaign speech, and as she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come." Gesturing to the market, she said, “This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

This was provocative talk in 1962 Georgia, and the crowd got all riled up. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. “No,” she said softly, “I am not.”

“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get those damned ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to the steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”

Wow! If every pulpit and Sunday school in the South had taught the things Grace learned in her Sunday school, the road to civil rights would have been much smoother and Martin Luther King, Jr. would have probably lived to die at a ripe old age. What Grace Thomas did was exceptional and unique for her time and her race. Grace supported civil rights before civil rights were cool, before it was hip to do so. She supported civil rights in the heat of the battle, when reputations, elections, and even lives were on the line. But with a name like Grace, could we have really expected anything else? Such courage impresses the heck out of me. I sometimes wonder what I would have done had I been a pastor in Little Rock instead of a one-year-old boy when Central High School was forcefully integrated by the famous Little Rock Nine and the U.S. Airborne in 1957. Would I have embraced civil rights for all in that day, let alone speak out in favor of those rights?

I don’t remember hearing anything about such matters as a grade-school kid in my Sunday school in Little Rock, but I did learn about it at home. I remember when my mother and father insisted that our black housekeeper/babysitter actually sit at the table with us for lunch even when she was very, very hesitant to do so. I remember when my mother took her home after her work and she refused to sit in the front seat with my mother, insisting instead that the back seat was where she belonged and that her husband would have her head if he caught her in the front seat. I think it was at home that I learned that black people, white people, rich people, poor people, all people, are equal in the eyes of God, and that means they should be equal in our eyes too.

But I was just a kid in those days. I don’t know what I would have done had I been an adult. Would I have been supporting the Little Rock Nine or protesting against them and calling them vulgar names like so many others were doing? Or even more, would I have just sat idly by as a spectator, doing nothing, refusing to take sides, choosing instead to "rise above the fray"? It seems to me that most of us have a higher estimation of our courage from a distance than we would probably exercise in the actual moment. So while I don’t know what I would have done in that day, I do know what Grace Thomas did. And on this Martin Luther King Day, 2011, I honor and applaud her for it.

8 comments:

  1. I would like to know more. Are there any books about her ? Respond to hollylang65@yahoo.com.

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    1. I don't know of any books, but I had the distinct pleasure of being one of her four grandchildren. She was special but we viewed her through the lens of family. I was unaware of the story above but it sounds like her. Michael.Thomas.fl@gmail.com

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    2. I don't know of any books, but I had the distinct pleasure of being one of her four grandchildren. She was special but we viewed her through the lens of family. I was unaware of the story above but it sounds like her. Michael.Thomas.fl@gmail.com

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    3. Thank you, Michael, for taking time to read and respond. Your grandmother was quite a lady. Wish I had known her. More folks like her back in the day, and a lot of racial angst could have been more readily and easily resolved.

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    4. Felicia Ann NewberryMarch 5, 2017 at 11:04 AM

      My pastor spoke about Mrs. Grace Thomas today in his sermon and he talked about all the great things that she was trying to accomplish as being a black woman and I commend her for trying to become governor of my state of Georgia.

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    5. Amazing how her legacy continues to bless people.

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  2. I too am one of her grandchildren. She was a great lady. After the attempts at the governatorial races, she went on in private practice to champion as a defense attorney the people who had difficulty affording counsel. We have stories of her bartering for chickens, paintings, and even one particularly useless tract of land. She kept that law office going until she died at age 76. We miss her. Thank you for that story we had not heard. If you would like to know more you can reach me at bruceandginna@gmail.com

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  3. I pray to see hearts changed, and that love of Jesus enter lives from your blog. Thank you for posting it. Your a great guy and a great pastor. An old Kansas City acquaintance.
    God Bless You1

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