Thompson Gets 'Courage' Honor
St. Louis, the city that once sent police in the night to arrest Herman Thompson and throw him in jail, has now proclaimed him a hero.
Thompson, a Southern Pines attorney, took part in a historic 1963 protest picketing the Jefferson Bank for its discriminatory hiring practices. The bank served as the repository of city funds, but would not hire blacks in any but menial jobs.
“When the bank moved into St. Louis, it fired all its black tellers,” Thompson said Thursday, holding down a booth at McDonald’s where he recalled those days. “We picketed, and the bank got an injunction to keep us out of the bank. We stayed on the sidewalk outside.”
When other protesters went into the bank itself, the city moved against Thompson’s group, charging them with contempt of court. He stayed in jail two weeks before their hearing.
“It was in the same old courtroom where Dred Scott took place,” Thompson said. “That went to the Supreme Court, where they said a slave was just property.”
Thompson received a plaque and a large inscribed certificate signed by the city board praising him as a courageous American “who helped change the moral, social, and political environments of our American society.”
Thompson and six others honored by the city during a banquet were featured in a special edition of the St. Louis Metro Sentinel titled “Courage in Adverse Times.”
When he was a boy, growing up in St. Louis, his family was on welfare.
“We never had a car,” he said. “I always wanted to go riding on Sunday. We never had an automobile. I used to pray.
“When I said my prayers at night, I said, ‘Bless Mama, bless Daddy … and Lord, send us a car.’ My daddy was a mechanic, but he never had enough money to buy a car.”
He would shine shoes, like a lot of black kids did in those days. Sometimes, when he got enough, he and his dad could go to a movie.
“I had a shoeshine box and I would go to the parks and shine shoes,” he said. “When I would come home on Sunday, we would go to the movies.
“I had a brother and four sisters, so it was hard to have him to myself. We would have a chance to walk to the movies and talk.”
Those walks were special times when father and son could talk together before buying their tickets and climbing stairs to sit in the segregated balcony of some St. Louis theater.
Not much changed between those days and the times years later when Thompson — college graduate and elementary schoolteacher — would find himself answering the same questions from his daughter he had once asked his father.
St. Louis had a wonderful amusement park, the Disney World of his area and time, with roller coaster rides and carousels. It was for whites only.
“We can’t go there,” Thompson said he told his little girl, just as his father told him.
Thompson said his daughter did not think that was fair and asked him what was he going to do about it.
He said he knew right then — perhaps always had known — that he would indeed have to do something. He joined the St. Louis chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and eventually became chapter president.
‘Scared Ain’t Enough’
Thompson was involved in sit-ins and marches. Like many young Americans in the 1960s, Thompson was caught up in “the movement.” He went to Miami for a meeting, where an encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed everything.
“That’s where I met Dr. King,” Thompson said. “He was speaking to our group in Miami as keynote speaker. He came in early, and we had a workshop. I had the opportunity to get him to myself and talk to him.
“I was complaining about the black lawyers in St. Louis, how they were just trying to make money. And then he said to me, ‘Well, what do you do?’ and I said, ‘I am a schoolteacher. I teach fifth grade.’
Thompson said King asked him why he didn’t go to law school.
“I said, ‘I’m scared,’” Thompson told King.
“‘Scared of what?’” King asked.
“‘Scared I ain’t smart enough,’” Thompson said he told King. “‘Scared I don’t have enough money, scared I wouldn’t have any place to stay.’ I came up with all kinds of excuses.”
King cut Thompson’s excuses down to size with a response that echoes in his memory to this day, something he thought about long and hard sitting in that cell in St. Louis.
“You don’t know what fear is,” King told Thompson. “You really don’t know what fear is.”
Thompson’s anxieties could hardly compare to very real dangers facing the King family every day, King explained.
“He told me, ‘I get threats on my life every day and threats on my children’s lives,’” Thompson remembers.
“If you want to go to law school, go!” King told Thompson. “You may not make it, but at least you got in there and you tried. And I think you will make it once you get in there, because you are determined.”
Two weeks after his term as CORE president ended, police came in the night and arrested him along with other leaders of the Jefferson Bank demonstration. In that Dred Scott courtroom, he was sentenced to 60 days in jail. When the Court of Appeals released him, he entered law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“The Ford Foundation gave a $1,800,000 grant,” he said. “They needed to fill up the freshman class so I was able to get in, even though my scores weren’t that high. Then I struggled on through. All the freedom riders were coming in about that time, 1965.”
‘Stay in the Struggle’
When he and King met again, it was in March 1968, a month before King’s assassination.
“The amazing thing is, he remembered me,” Thompson said. “He said, ‘Did you go to law school?’ I asked myself how this man could remember me out of all the people he meets. I told him yes, that I would graduate in June.”
King remembered more than that. He reminded Thompson of his reason for entering the practice of law.
“Remember what you said about those other lawyers?” King told him. “Make sure you stay in the struggle. Don’t be just making money.”
Thompson said he will never forget that challenge issued by the civil rights leader.
“The next month, he was assassinated,” he said. “I have been involved with civil rights groups most of my life.”
Besides CORE, Thompson is a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an attorney for the NAACP locally.
“I join all sorts of things,” he said. “The Association of Republican Men, any group that tries to do something. I even belong to the League of Women Voters.”
Thompson said he remembers something else King told him: “Stay with the struggle.”
Thompson said he identifies with those who have to struggle. Jailers in Carthage say he often brings money to his clients, small amounts they can use for snacks and other little expenses while locked up.
“Oh, it’s not much, maybe two or three dollars,” he said. “But it means a lot to go to the canteen. The time I spent in jail during the sit-ins wasn’t so bad, because I was with my friends — but it made me realize that jail is a lonely place. It is not a place that I would want to be again. People were outside singing freedom songs, but they were out there, and we were inside.”
He said he likes to remind the younger generation that people were jailed, beaten and died for things they take for granted, like taking their kids to Disneyland, getting a hamburger and voting.
“You need to vote,” Thompson said. “You need to vote whether your candidate is going to win or not, because every time you vote they know your vote is out there.”
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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