MLK Speaker: ‘I Suffered These Injustices’


Barbara Thompson, a longtime civil rights activist.

Annette Ritzko and Erin Dougherty

   Martin Luther King Jr. Week events served as a big draw for newly returned students.

   The week kicked off with a presentation by Barbara Thompson, a longtime civil rights activist, followed by a showing of the movie “Selma.”

   Thompson was born in Birmingham, and she is a graduate of Tougaloo College, in Jackson Mississippi where she majored in Sociology. She is  a member of the advisory board of the Harrisburg High School Student Business and Industry Program and Central PA Educational Collaborative. Thompson also serves as Director of the Student Leadership Development Institute, which is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Black Conference on Higher Education, Inc. She is  a life member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and served as president for the Epsilon Sigma Omega Chapter from 2006-09.

   Although Thompson was not a participant in the Selma, Alabama march, she was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement, especially in Birmingham. Before Thompson began her presentation, she was introduced by Lena Williams, a sophomore communications major, who served on the Martin Luther King Jr. committee, which organized the events. When she had heard the university was interested in having a showing of the movie “Selma,” she immediately thought about Thompson, her mother’s friend and sorority sister because of her background and involvement in the matter.

   “I think this talk is especially pertinent at this time, while we are facing racial issues. Reading history from a book or seeing it in a movie is one thing, but people and their stories are the best way to express what it was really like during pivotal points in human history. I hope the students and others who come to see this will take away a real piece of history,” said Williams.

   Thompson recalled some injustices that she and other people of color experienced during her childhood. Thompson credited her work-ethic to her parents and believes that parents and other family members are a child’s first teachers and, therefore, they are responsible too for passing on stories of the past. She believes children need to be informed and aware because they will be the ones who make  change in the future.

   “During the Civil Right’s Movement, it was the children and young people who helped to make the difference and break the back of segregation,” said Thompson.

   It wasn’t until college that  Thompson attended class with a white student, which was significant because, when she was in twelfth grade, it had already been eleven years after Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.

   Many people have heard about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but a year after that, Birmingham also had a bus boycott, Thompson said.

   “I remember paying my toll at the front of the bus, and then getting off to go to the rear because we couldn’t pass the white people. When I got off, sometimes the bus would leave without you,” she said.

  While still young, Thompson had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. It happened because her aunt, who was secretary of a church, needed more stamps.

   “While on his way out, King said he would get the stamps, was going to take me with him, and when he came back, he would drop me off and continue on his way,” said  Thompson who at the time did not imagine how much of an impact he would make on the country.

   She said the church was extremely important to the black community, as it was a place where people could gather in safety. There were mass meetings held throughout Birmingham in different churches. The church also acted as a community center and was the site of lessons that helped prepare adults for literacy tests – an obstacle for black Americans to vote.

   Her involvement increased during her teens when youth marches began to become popular. While in high school, a bus came to pick up students during the day to march from downtown Birmingham to City Hall. It was terrifying, she said, because if she decided to go, her school would see her as a delinquent and she may have been suspended. For the first few days of the march, bus loads of children were arrested, but by Friday of the week, police officers began spraying marchers with water hoses and using German Shepherds to chase marchers.

   “I went home with my girl scout uniform on, with my shoes squeaking wet, and my clothes stuck to my body. I sat on the front seat of the bus, because I wanted everyone to see the injustice that I had just suffered, and I suffered these injustices because I wanted things to be better, not only for me, but for all of us,” said Thompson.

   All the people who participated in the marches were called “foot soldiers,” and in the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, there is a book that lists their names, including Thompson’s.

   Students said they attended the presentation and film showing to learn more about the movement.

   “I only know the basics about the Civil Right’s movement, and Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, but I wish to know more. I hope to be more educated on what they went through, and all that Thompson herself had to go through and the sacrifices she had to make,” said Paige Greenley, a first year speech-language pathology student.

   “I came here to support my roommate Lena Williams and to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, because I can’t even imagine some of the things they had to have gone through. I just feel lucky things have definitely improved,” said Paige Shaughnessy, a sophomore medical imaging major.

   Dominick deMatteo, an organizational management graduate student said most of what he knew he learned in a museum.

   “I had gone to a museum about the Selma march, and I thought it was really interesting. I hoped to learn more about it through Barbara Thompson’s stories and the movie,” he said.

   After the event, Stephanie Helsel, a sophomore, said both the speaker and movie were very powerful.

   “I liked that Thompson didn’t hold anything back and was very blunt about her personal experiences. When she said ‘ The most segregated time in America is on Sunday mornings,’ I thought that was somewhat true, because I can see it in my church and other churches in my area, because we tend to flock with people who we are familiar and comfortable with. I didn’t know how intense the Selma situation was, so I thought it was awesome to have learned so much more. I also thought it was great about how proud she was for being part of the civil rights movement,” Helsel said.