Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday that’s meaningful to many people. People such as Thomas Jefferson, 75, of Fargo. Jefferson grew up poor in a one bedroom house with eight children in Columbia, S.C. It was the Jim Crow South, where segregation was a way of life.
Jefferson went to schools just for black students, where the books were leftovers from white students. He was banned from many hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, beaches, bathrooms and water fountains.
“In those days you knew your place,” Jefferson said. “Just stay on your side of the line. Otherwise, the police will beat you with billy clubs. Just don’t interact with white people. I thought it was unfair and demeaning.”
Jefferson will never forget when he saw a KKK rally and cross burning. “I ran away and stayed inside when that happened,” he said.
Jefferson was often called “boy” or the n-word. His school was across the street from the jail.
“I could hear black people screaming in jail. The police were beating them,” Jefferson said. “I saw black people hit on the head with police billy clubs for just standing around on a city street. We didn’t look at white people. We heard that things could happen if you looked at a white girl. We heard about Emmett Till.”
Traveling was frightening, such as Jefferson’s drives to visit relatives in Washington, D.C.
“We always left at midnight, so we wouldn’t be seen,” Jefferson said. “We made sure we brought enough food because we couldn’t go into restaurants and hotels. We had to go to the bathroom on the side of the road.”
Jefferson had heard about civil rights leaders such as King and Thurgood Marshall, and they inspired him.
“King was a great man,” Jefferson said. “He changed things so much with his approach of nonviolence. When I read his letter from prison, tears come to my eyes. He had a huge impact on me.”
So, motivated by King, Marshall and Malcolm X, when Jefferson was in high school, he took some gutsy actions. He refused to sit in the back of a public bus and asked for service at a Woolworth lunch counter.
“We thought we had power,” Jefferson said. “We were trying to say we’re equal and we had the same rights.”
Jefferson moved to Fargo in 1978. He is a State Farm Insurance agent, the only African American agent in the Dakotas.
“Our teachers told us to be proud of who we are, and one day we’re going to be sitting next to white kids and we will show them we’re just as good as they are,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson still hears racist words yelled at him while getting in his car, but has loved living in Fargo.
“I couldn’t imagine the end of Jim Crow,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine I would be where I’m at. I’ve been given a great opportunity. I’m supposed to be here. I didn’t think I’d ever get here with all those obstacles.”