By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs
NEWPORT, R.I. —As Nathan Thomas Jr. stood alongside nearly 600 demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, he did not know that what he was doing would be a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
“We were just ordinary folks,” Thomas said. “Nobody was trying to be great. The one thing we were trying to do was stay alive.”
Thomas, now a 74-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel and president of Welcome Home Vets, visited the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport on Jan. 16 to share some of his experiences during the civil rights movement, as well as messages of love, community, and action. NUWC’s Equal Employment Opportunity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office presented his talk in advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20.
“Hearing someone like this speech is an opportunity you don’t usually run into,” said Claire Ryan, a scientist in Division Newport’s Undersea Warfare Weapons, Vehicles and Defense Systems Department, who sat in the front row and received as a gift an autographed book from Thomas after his talk. “For a lot of the audience, hopefully, this will make them think about the holiday a little more in-depth.”
As Thomas demonstrated, ordinary folks, can make an extraordinary impact in the world if they choose to act. It requires some existential thought, however, with respect to considering one’s legacy.
“Whether or not you like it, you’re going to die, but there’s a little thing in the center called the dash — your legacy,” Thomas said. “Many people live their lives without thinking about their legacy. That symbolizes all that they are. If you look at a tombstone, you will see this year, dash, this year.
“… Once you get past the fear of dying, you can begin to live.”
Thomas was just 18 years old when he began to cement a lasting legacy. Children often participated in the marches and it was Thomas’ job to protect the smaller ones. That was the case on March 7, 1965 — what would become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
On that day, Thomas and his fellow demonstrators — including civil rights leaders James Bevel, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others — planned to march from the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma to the state’s capital in Montgomery.
When Thomas arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River, he and his fellow demonstrators faced hatred and oppression head-on amid a graveyard of racism.
Their path took them on Route 80, also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway and named for the former president of the Confederacy. The bridge was named for former Alabama Sen. Edmund Pettus, a senior officer in the Confederate States Army and later grand dragon in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. His name is emblazoned in bold letters on crossbeams on each end of the bridge.
“I got tired of where you couldn’t go to the bathroom, where you couldn’t drink water,” Thomas said. “Water is just water to me. There’s no black water; there’s no white water — just water.”
That day on the bridge, Thomas and many of his fellow protestors were attacked by police, some on horseback, carrying iron rods wrapped in rubber and, in some cases, barbed wire. A picture of Boynton wounded and lying unconscious on the bridge was publicized worldwide.
“We were badly beaten,” Thomas said. “The only saving grace was that it was on TV so that the nation saw what we went through.”
Two days later, King led about 2,500 people on a second march to the bridge where they held a brief prayer session and turned around in accordance with a restraining order issued in U.S. District Court. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson outlined what would be the Voting Rights Act to prohibit racial discrimination in voting (it became effective on Aug. 6, 1965). On March 17, a third and finally successful march to Montgomery was staged with an escort by the Alabama National Guard under the order of President Johnson. About 25,000 people entered the capital eight days later.
“The civil rights movement was more than about us,” Thomas said. “It was about a legacy that we’ll pass on to those who come after us. You have to have the courage and the hope to make a change.”
Part of that legacy is King’s “love community,” of which Thomas is a major proponent.
“The theory is that no matter where you go, you’re in a community,” Thomas said while noting his work with children of military parents killed in the line of duty. “That has worked extremely well for me. The love community is anywhere you make it, but you have to drive to make the changes.”
After Thomas concluded, he took some time to answer questions from the audience. The final one came from Mallory Davis, of Division Newport’s Undersea Warfare Electromagnetic Systems Department, who asked Thomas if he had heard of Cleveland Sellers. Thomas said he had, but asked Davis to explain to the audience about him.
Sellers, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the only person convicted and jailed for the events of the Feb. 8, 1968, Orangeburg Massacre, a civil rights protest in South Carolina where three students were killed by state troopers. Sellers served seven months in jail for inciting a riot. He received a full pardon 25 years later.
Davis also used his time with the microphone to laud the actions of coaches in southeastern football conferences during that time who recruited black football players.
“When you’re going to make a change, you have to step out,” Davis said. “That’s just as good as being a racist by not taking a stand.”
Davis, who now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, grew up in southern Virginia during the latter part of the civil rights movement, said he has experienced prejudice firsthand, no matter in what area of the country he has lived. After graduating from Providence College with a degree in mathematics and computer science, Davis, now 62, began working at Division Newport — then the Naval Underwater Systems Center (NUSC).
Among a series of stories about injustices, Davis has seen in his lifetime was one in 1983, when he first began working at NUSC. Involved in a torpedo program that required travel, Davis went to check into a hotel and was denied a room. He said he was informed the establishment did not allow “blacks or Mexicans.” What stood out to Davis, aside from the actions of the hotel’s management, was how his coworkers reacted.
“Only one person decided not to stay at the hotel,” Davis said. “Everyone else asked me if I minded if they stay at the hotel. I shouldn’t have to tell them what is right to do. I just told them I would judge them by their choices.”
From there, Davis elaborated on the importance of evaluating each situation for what is and judging people for their actions. Thomas also addressed this topic in his talk.
“All kids aren’t bad. All adults aren’t bad, but for this country to realize its true potential, there needs to be some get-up, get down and get with it,” Thomas said. “You have to make dynamic changes. You have to believe that tomorrow will be good. I hope for a better tomorrow. I hope this nation will grow into what it should be.”