Augusta Thomas was 'a true warrior for workers’ rights, civil rights and human rights'

EDITOR'S NOTE: We will publish funeral arrangements when they are finalized.

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

My friend and union brother W.C. Young of Paducah never went anywhere without his union card and his NAACP in card.

So it was with Augusta Thomas of Louisville.

I only met her a few times. But like W.C., she spent most of her life championing organized labor and civil rights.   

"Our needs are identical with labor's needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said.

Added Thomas's teenage friend: "That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth."

W.C. and Augusta Thomas knew exactly what King meant.

She died yesterday, "at home surrounded by her family," said her longtime friend and union brother Bill Londrigan, Kentucky State AFL-CIO president. "Augusta was a true warrior for workers’ rights, civil rights and human rights and will be greatly missed."

Thomas lost a long and wearying battle with cancer "while still maintaining a full work load," remembered Londrigan. 

Funeral arrangements are incomplete, he said. 

Until last August, she was vice president for women and fair practices with the American Federation of Government Employees. She had held the post for nine years.

“Augusta Thomas was an inspiration to everyone who knew her and will be greatly missed by all of her AFGE brothers and sisters," said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. "She was a tireless advocate for civil and human rights, and we will make sure that her legacy continues for generations."

Her successor, Jeremy Lannan, hailed her as "AFGE's most iconic leader – a champion who sacrificed everything to ensure future generations have a voice and a seat at the table. The best way to honor her legacy is to keep fighting for fairness and equality, as she did for her entire life.”

Thomas's office was at AFGE headquarters in Washington. But she was born in Louisville and called the Falls City home. 

The last time I saw here was in February at the Working People’s Day of Action rally at the UAW Local 862 hall on Fern Valley Road. She was in the speaker's lineup.  

The crowd kept interrupting her with cheers and loud applause.

Her address was a short sketch of her remarkable life. She told about the time when she and two of her teenage friends wanted to play a game that required a quartet.

“Little Martin” balked.

"We had to take turns putting the coal and the wood in the furnace in the cellar, and it was ‘Little Martin’s’ time to do it,” she said, smiling, her brown eyes twinkling. “So when he went down, I locked the door.”

The standoff lasted 30 minutes before “Little Martin” gave up and agreed to play. “But let me tell you what,” Thomas said, her grin broadening. “I got punished when I got home.”

Her “prisoner” was 17-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.

When Thomas was 13, she went to Atlanta to live with her aunt and uncle. He was a Methodist minister and colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., a Baptist.

“The pastors would meet at 'Little Martin’s house,'” Thomas told me after her speech. “It had a parlor—we called it a living room. That’s where the ministers would go. ‘Little Martin’ would always sit by the door, listening to what they were saying.”

King and Thomas went to school together. After she returned to Louisville, she graduated from Central Colored High School. Thomas also went to Atlanta’s Clark University and the Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing in St. Louis.

She was a civil rights activist before she was a labor activist.

In 1960, she journeyed to Greensboro, N.C., to join the historic lunch counter sit-ins. Angry whites spit on her and shoved her off a stool. Police twice arrested her.

Meanwhile, “Little Martin” had grown up to become a Baptist minister. He was helping lead the expanding civil rights movement of which Thomas was a part.

She signed up with AFGE on Nov. 12, 1966, her first day on the job at Louisville's VA hospital. She and "Little Martin" crossed paths again in Memphis in April, 1968.

He was in the city supporting 1,300 African American sanitation workers who went on strike after two members of a garbage truck crew were killed. The truck malfunctioned and crushed them to death.

For years, black sanitation department employees had worked long hours at low pay in dangerous conditions. They endured rampant racial prejudice in Jim Crow Memphis. (Segregation was the law and the social order in Louisville, too.)

Thomas blamed the men's deaths on “the racism and negativism of the city officials who treated them as less than human, who ignored the workers’ call for safety and who paid them poverty wages.” The workers also wanted a union.

Consequently, “thirteen-hundred of our brothers and sisters rose up, risked everything, and went to strike for dignity and justice, using four simple words--powerful words—‘I am a man.’”

Ultimately, the city relented, boosted salaries, improved safety standards and recognized the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733.

King did not live to see the union triumph. He was assassinated on April 4.

Thomas and five other women from different Falls City unions were in Memphis to stand in solidarity with the strikers. They were in first floor rooms at the Lorraine Motel; King was on the second floor.

The women were in their rooms when James Earl Ray, a racist white man, murdered King with a rifle shot. He was standing on a second-floor balcony.

Thomas and her union sisters heard the gunfire. “We thought it was firecrackers, and we just ignored it,” she said.

The motel manager, fearing for their safety, rushed Thomas and the other women to another hotel and ordered the manager not to let them leave.

They turned on the TV and saw news reports of King's death. “The manager couldn’t keep us,” Thomas declared. “We had to go back to the Lorraine. But we could only go so far, and all I could think about was that my friend was gone.”

The night before, Thomas and the other union women from Louisville joined the crowd at Bishop Mason Temple church where King spoke.

His last address went down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

“When he was making that speech, I had chills running down me,” Thomas also told me. “But I didn’t get to talk to him.”

In her talk, Thomas quoted from the ringing conclusion of King’s immortal speech: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Thomas urged the crowd: “We’ve got to get to the mountaintop. We have got to work together. We’ve got to get rid of ‘45’ and some of those folks up on that hill in Washington, D.C.”

She predicted, “They’re running scared. We won Alabama. We won Virginia…They are afraid they are going to lose in November, 2018, and we’re going to make sure they do.”

Thomas warned, “The future of working people hangs in the balance right now. As a woman, I have seen all we have worked for inside and outside the workplace. Women are more equal on the unionized shop floor. As brothers and sisters, we bargain together to get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

“By joining together in unions, women, particularly women of color, have gotten closer to true equality in the workplace. Equal pay, family-friendly leave and scheduling and freedom from harassment. We must stand until we are all equals, no matter our race, no matter our gender, no matter our class. We must stand together and demand an end to this rigged system so that we all may be truly free.”

The AFGE issued a news release mourning her death and the death of Ken Blaylock, a former national president. 

Before she was elected a national vice president, Thomas served more than 42 years in local and regional AFGE leadership positions, the release said. "In recognition of her work on civil, human, and workplace rights, AFGE’s 6th District developed the Augusta Thomas Humanitarian Award, which is presented every three years to an AFGE member who comes closest to following Thomas’s example. Thomas also was recognized by the Commonwealth of Kentucky for her efforts to promote racial equality and economic development, declaring April 4th as Augusta Thomas Day."