Thorns reflects on King's dream, growing up in segregated south
February 6, 2006 —
Mamie Thorns remembers.
Mamie Thorns remembers the anger and frustration of growing up in segregated Mississippi - the colored drinking fountains, having to sit in the balcony of the movie theatre, walking five miles to school when there was a beautiful new school for whites just a few blocks from her home.
But Thorns also remembers having hope.
She remembers her aunt encouraging her to get an education, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking down the street of her hometown and how a bullet fired almost 40 years ago changed her life forever.
Most of all, she remembers how it got her here. Today, Thorns is the special assistant to the president for Diversity Programs, providing answers to the problems she knows better than most. But to truly understand who Thorns is today, you must go back to Brandon, Mississippi, where it all began.
"The only way out"
Brandon, Mississippi is 15 miles east of Jackson, which was a civil rights hotbed in the 1960s. Though Brandon did not receive the publicity of neighbor Jackson, its citizens felt the force of segregation and discrimination just the same. It was here that Thorns grew up experiencing some of the things most people in this area have only heard about or seen on television.
Thorns attended Piney Woods Country Life School in Piney Woods, Mississippi. A private school, it emphasized studying and the importance of education. For her part, Thorns was just as committed to education as Piney Woods was to giving it. Part of this commitment came from the encouragement of her aunt, Edna Winsley. Winsley herself had graduated from Piney Woods and had been Thorns' second grade teacher. Winsley helped Thorns see that the way out of the segregated south was through education. Winsley also practiced what she preached. At the age of 50, she went back to school and got her degree.
"She was and still is a great mentor, a great aunt, and definitely a great mother to me," Thorns says.
One advantage Piney Woods gave Thorns was exposure to diversity. Her instructors and fellow students were of different races and backgrounds, helping Thorns see the value in diversity.
"I have always worked with diverse groups, even though I grew up in the segregated state of Mississippi," she says. "I'm very proud of the experiences I had. Those experiences helped mold me into who I am today."
"Keeping the dream alive"
Thorns was still young when King came to her hometown. She had known about him through the media and had heard her parents and neighbors discuss the civil rights leader. She remembers standing amongst the people lining the sides of the streets, just waiting to catch a glimpse of the larger-than-life symbol of hope.
"When he walked down the main street in Brandon, I just couldn't believe it," Thorns says. "I was so excited and so proud to have the opportunity to see and hear him in person and see the excitement that he brought. He gave us such hope that it wouldn't be like this always and that there are better days ahead."
Thorns says she owes a great deal to King and that she would not be where she is today if it had not been for his influence, not only on her but on an entire race.
"He raised our consciousness about who we are and what we can become," she says.
Of course, King wasn't without his enemies. Thorns spent a great deal of time hurt and confused over people's negative feelings towards King.
"There were people who hated him because of what he stood for and what he believed in. He's saying all those things we want to say but we're afraid for our lives to say it."
Ultimately, King lost his own life in the civil rights battle. On April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. His assassination made global news and served as the catalyst for riots across the country. But for an 18-year-old girl in Brandon, his murder was much more painful and far more personal. Just 38 days after King was killed, Thorns' own mother passed away. She believes both deaths served as a turning point in her life.
"I felt that I had lost a mother," she says, "and also a father."
After her mother passed away, Thorns went to live with Winsley, who continued to encourage her to pursue her goals.
"I feel like I had a responsibility," she says, "to make sure that I was doing everything that I could to keep Dr. King's dream alive."
"Receiving a sign"
When Thorns graduated from Piney Woods, she was determined to leave the South. Having been taught that the best education and job opportunities were in the north, and having family in the Midwest, Thorns applied to several universities in Michigan and Indiana. Though there was excitement in regards to sending out college applications, it did cause one conflict for Thorns.
Winsley asked Thorns what she would do if several colleges accepted her. Thorns decided that the first acceptance letter she received would act as a sign.
That sign came from Anderson University.
Anderson University is a small school in Anderson, Indiana, 40 miles outside Indianapolis. When Thorns received the letter, she was more hesitant about going than she thought she'd be. She said it was too cold and too far away. She came up with all sorts of excuses why not to go. But again, Winsley was there for her, telling her she had to stick by her word and go to Anderson. Thorns got on a plane, left home for the first time, and headed to Anderson on a scholarship.
Thorns received a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Anderson and received an offer to teach. However, Thorns was ready to decline the job and return home when Winsley again stepped forward and offered advice. She asked Thorns why she would come back to Mississippi with no job when she was offered a job in Anderson. Thorns, seeing the logic in her aunt's advice, stayed and took the job, beginning a career in education that has lasted for over 30 years.
"Retaining the values"
Thorns started teaching fourth grade in Anderson and immediately knew it was what she had always wanted to do.
"I just fell in love with teaching," she says.
Thorns' students were diverse and the majority of them were poor. While the school had wanted to assign her to a more upscale school, Thorns disagreed, instead believing she could make more of a difference to a less privileged school.
After her first year of teaching, she realized her students were not ready to move on to fifth grade. From an early age, many of them had not received the attention they deserved and several of them could only read at a first grade level. As a result, Thorns requested she too move to the fifth grade with her class so that she could continue to work with them. At first, her idea was rejected, but after several parents went to the superintendent also requesting Thorns stay with the children, the school decided to let her move to the fifth grade. Following that year, before she even had a chance to ask, the school granted her permission to follow the same students to the sixth grade.
One thing Thorns did in those years of teaching was celebrate King and all he had stood for. Every year, she would personally work with a student to help them memorize and recite King's "Dream" speech. Thorns had made sure she would retain the values and lessons she had learned, those taught as well as the ones learned first hand.
"I don't think I have more knowledge, I have the experiences," she says. "I know what racism looks like, I know what it smells like, I know it when I see it. I know what discrimination is. I understand when students ... talk to me about how they feel and how they are being treated. I do understand. I understand what they're feeling and going through because I've been there."