The sharecropper’s son: Michael Thurmond makes history

March 1, 2020

A young Michael Thurmond spent much of the 1960s in the back of his father's pickup truck as they sold fruits and vegetables to families across East and West Athens. Decades later, Thurmond would take the same route to the same houses as he campaigned to become the first African-American elected to the Georgia House of Representatives out of a majority white district since Reconstruction.

Elected in 1986 to represent House District 67, Thurmond made history, but this accomplishment took 32 years of education, networking and overcoming racial discrimination and division.

Watching his father's interactions with customers on the vegetable route was the beginning of the development of Thurmond's social skills that overcame any prejudice he would face.

"Some of our customers were white and some were black. As a young child, I would watch him interact with people. He would make sure he always treated them with respect, and they would treat him respectfully," Thurmond said.

Still, Thurmond experienced the injustices of segregated and unequal schools and facilities. Additionally, his family suffered the disadvantages of unequal job opportunities and resources.

"My daddy was what we called a sharecropper," Thurmond said. "So you work the land for the person who owned it, and you share the harvest that you generate from the land. For most of my life, we were just renters, we didn't own the land. He subsequently bought a farm about eight miles away, but until I was 16, that's where I was born and raised."

The Thurmond's lived in what is now known as Sandy Creek Nature Center. Michael's father, Sidney Thurmond, worked in the fields in the daytime and at a poultry plant in the evening. Selling fruits and vegetables provided extra income. Vanilla Thurmond, Michael's mother, helped in the fields and cared for her children.

Still, the Thurmond's struggled financially with nine children and unfair wages. The youngest of nine, Michael looked up to his siblings.

"I would always study them," Michael said. "One of the things I did was adopt certain characteristics from all of my brothers and sisters. I had a brother, for instance, who loved to write. And that was one of my inspirations for becoming a writer. I had a sister who was very smart in school, so I wanted to have good grades."

Like his sister, Michael's father encouraged his son to learn. Sidney never had a formal education and could not read or write, but in between his jobs he helped Michael with his homework. Sidney knew the importance of education because he experienced the disadvantages of illiteracy.

"There was nothing he wouldn't sacrifice to send my brothers and sisters and myself to college or wherever we wanted to go. He knew that ultimately that's what would make the difference. That's the great equalizer in the world," Michael said.

Michael spent the majority of his childhood in segregated schools. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case was decided in 1954, the year after Thurmond was born. This case overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) and its "separate but equal" doctrine. The Brown vs. Board decision ordered desegregation "with all deliberate speed," but it left room for predominantly southern schools to drag their feet in the integration process. Thus Thurmond did not attend a desegregated school until his senior year, 16 years after the decision.

At the first integrated high school in Athens, Clarke Central High School, Thurmond was in the first graduating class. He held the position of student body co-president as well as the school's record time for the 100-meter dash in 1971.

The community's transition toward integration was not as simple as combining bus routes. The process involved consolidating two existing high schools – all black Burney-Harris High School and predominantly white Athens High School. Before students protested, the plan was for all of Burney-Harris to be absorbed by Athens High. Burney-Harris students were upset by the plan for integration that would sacrifice much of their school's identity.

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