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.
“While (Burney-Harris students) might have agreed that Athens High School had the larger building and was therefore the more logical place to house the newly integrated student body, they did not want to adopt the school’s name, principal, faculty, colors, team mascot, or newspaper in the bargain. The situation was further complicated by the intense athletic rivalry between the two schools,” Michael wrote in his book “A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History.”
While Burney-Harris students recognized they would have to make some sacrifices, they spoke up to achieve a fairer process. In April of 1970, over 100 Burney-Harris students, including Michael Thurmond, protested in the streets of Athens. Some violence and vandalism resulted on both high school campuses, and Superior Court Judge James Barrow issued an injunction against Thurmond and 12 others, ordering them to attend court. This was Thurmond’s first appearance in court, though he would later serve as an attorney.
Ultimately the protest efforts were successful. Burney-Harris High School’s identity was integrated into Athens High School just as the students were. Burney-Harris High’s The Highlight newspaper and Athens High’s Thumbtack Tribune combined to become the Highlights of the Thumbtack Tribune. The Trojans and the Yellow Jackets became the Gladiators. Burney-Harris High’s blue and gold and Athens High’s red and white became Clarke Central High’s gold and red. Thurmond and his classmates’ protests led to Clarke Central High School’s creation.
“We were leading the effort with the consolidation when we were 17, and Clarke Central exists because we wanted to make a difference,” Thurmond said. “These changes began the transformation to a widely diverse school system. One of the reasons we ended segregation was so that not just my generation, but more importantly the generations that came after me, would have the opportunity to develop relationships, friendships and partnerships with people, irrespective of race, color, creed or gender. And it has been encouraging to see that process continue.”
Thurmond’s attendance at the desegregated Clarke Central helped him build skills he would use throughout his social life, education and political career.
“I had grown up in a segregated society. It was a life-changing moment, because it opened up these new experiences and new relationships. It was a historic moment, but it was also a watershed moment for me as a person,” Thurmond said.
After graduating from Clarke Central in 1971, Thurmond attended Paine College. He graduated cum laude in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion.
“My goal was to be a minister, so that’s why I have a degree in philosophy. But sometimes you have to correct your course. We set these goals for ourselves, but sometimes you change your mind. And you shouldn’t be afraid of doing that,” Thurmond said.
Michael went to law school at the University of South Carolina and obtained a Juris Doctor degree. Although he did not pursue ministry as he anticipated, he believes his work now has a similar impact.
“I believe I’m still serving. I’m not a minister, but it is a ministry because you’re serving people, and you’re trying to lead and help them,” Thurmond said. Later he attended Harvard to complete a political executives degree.
During Thurmond’s time at the University of South Carolina, he published his first book, “A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History.” Thurmond was first inspired to write it in his high school African-American History class.
“My teacher was Miss Elizabeth King. One day she said, ‘Michael if you want a textbook, why don’t you go and write one?’ And I always said that was the moment when the idea to actually write the African-American history of Athens was born, in a classroom during my senior year,” Thurmond said.
After completing his degree at Harvard, Thurmond returned to Athens as a lawyer. Then in 1982, he ran against incumbent Hugh Logan to represent District 67 in the Georgia House of Representatives. After losing by 200 votes, Thurmond argued that there were voting irregularities, but he did not take legal action. He ran a second time against Logan in 1984 and lost again. This time he filed a lawsuit claiming there were no polling places or community registration centers in black communities. Thurmond did not want to change the results of the 1984 election; rather he was fighting for fair elections.
“One position I took was I don’t necessarily want to change this election. I want to make sure that future elections were conducted in a fair and impartial way. Some major changes occurred after that, and as it turned out I won the next time,” Thurmond said. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1986 and represented District 67 until 1992.
Thurmond’s effort to reach across party and racial lines propelled his win. At first, he was hesitant to build relationships with white voters, he said. Because District 67 was a majority white district, a win would have been near impossible without white voters.
“I was trying to get elected just with the people I was most comfortable and familiar with which were African-Americans, and I couldn’t do it,” Thurmond said. “So we evolve – not necessarily because we volunteer to do it. We evolve because we don’t have any choice but to do it. I had to choose whether or not I wanted to be successful as an elected official or remain captive to my own fears and inhibitions.”
The combination of a fairer election and Thurmond’s stronger campaign resulted in the first African-American representative to represent a majority white district since Reconstruction. Thurmond was also Clarke County’s first black state representative since Reconstruction.
Mikaya Thurmond, Michael, and his wife Zola’s daughter grew up while her father was involved in politics. Today she works in Raleigh, North Carolina as a reporter and a weekend morning anchor for WRAL-TV. In 2008 Mikaya graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree and in 2018 she earned a master’s degree in journalism at Harvard University. Michael says his involvement in politics influenced Mikaya’s interest in journalism.
“She told me ‘Dad, while the cameras were focused on us, I was watching the people behind the camera.’ And so very early along, when she was seven, eight years old, she had a radio show and she enjoys writing,” Michael said.
Thurmond’s career in politics and government has focused on improving lives through many of the same issues that Thurmond saw in his early life.
While in office Michael worked to lower taxes for seniors and working families, saving over $250 million. In 1994 Governor Zell Miller appointed Michael to be the head of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children’s services. There he built the Work First Program through which nearly 100,000 families transitioned from welfare dependence to full-time jobs.
From 2013 to 2015, Thurmond served as the superintendent of Dekalb County School District. When he took the role the district had a $14 million dollar deficit and was threatened by the potential loss of accreditation. While Thurmond was superintendent, the county’s graduation rate rose from 57-percent to 62-percent, and the deficit turned into an $80 million surplus.
Now Thurmond is the CEO of Dekalb County. Having experienced integration and enjoying its advantages, Thurmond is encouraged by the diversity he sees in schools now.
“[In Dekalb County] we have Clarkston High School, it’s one of the most diverse high schools in the world because kids from all over the world go to Clarkston. Christian, Jew, Muslim, true believers. And what I’ve learned is that kids are kids, you know, we have very similar hopes and dreams, and we’re all just as silly,” Thurmond said.
While Thurmond is heartened by the diversity in many schools, he remains wary of becoming too comfortable. He hopes that the Athens community will continue to evolve.
“I would hope that Athens would continue to be more sensitive to the large percentage of people living below the poverty line. Athens is a very tolerant community made up of well educated upper income neighborhoods, but we can’t overlook the fact that there’s still thousands of Athenians who live in poverty, who do not have safe housing, and sometimes go without food. It’s such a beautiful place — to live and work and play, but there are people who still live in the shadows,” Thurmond said.