The Rev. Oliver “Buzz” Thomas had a goal in mind when he addressed the Martin Luther King, Jr., Business Luncheon at Denso on Jan. 15.
“I think it’s so rare we get Blount County, Alcoa and Maryville together in one room,” said Thomas. “We’re not going to leave until we get some things done.”
What Thomas wanted to bring to light was the need to create scholarships for graduating students from low-income homes, capitalize a low-income credit union and better educate today’s students about the realities of racial diversity.
Thomas, a Blount County native, Baptist minister and attorney, said he knew from the earliest part of his life he was on a trajectory to accomplish something. “Take away my family, my positive role models, put me in a McDonalds flipping hamburgers and see what I do,” he said. “The struggle for racial justice has become a struggle for economic justice…we have a long way to go.”
Thomas referred to the book by John Howard Griffin “Black Like Me” in which the author posed as a black man and traveled across the Southern U.S. “It is a startling account of the different kind of life you live in the United States just because you are black,” he said. “White people know about DUI and DWI, but they don’t know anything about DWB (Driving While Black). Lots of young people find themselves in difficult situations just because they’re driving while they are black. I do not pretend to understand what the African American community experiences but I want to be on a journey with you and continue to learn.”
Sharing his thoughts on how far the country has come in terms of civil rights, Thomas said 50 years ago most African-Americans in the South couldn’t vote because of Jim Crow Laws. Now the president of the United States is an African-American.
“Fifty years ago most African Americans could not play golf on public courses and now the best golfer in the world is African American,” he said.
Thomas said the leading cause of death among young African Americans is still homicide. “African American men are as likely to wind up in jail as college, in prison as graduate school,” he said. “Is this because African American men are meaner? The average income of an African American family is a fraction of a white family. Do you think it’s because African Americans are less ambitious?”
Circumstances often dictate a negative outcome, Thomas said. “Deprive them of the right to education, right to vote and decent jobs and give them cheap cocaine and that’s what you get,” he said. “We will continue to have a drug problem in the United States until everyone has a realistic shot at a decent life.”
Thomas said education is the only ticket into today’s economy. “Seventy percent of people no longer get paid for what they do but rather for what they know,” he said.
Thomas said the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent in Tennessee. For people with a two-year associates degree, the rate drops to 5 percent. “Education drives the economic train, and kids won’t be able to get a job or have a decent life without a good education,” he said. “If you want to achieve Dr. King’s dream, let’s start a scholarship fund. We ought to give any kid who graduates from any of our four high schools a scholarship to go to Pellissippi State for free. We ought to give them access.”
Thomas said Kingsport and Knox County have started similar programs. “What would it cost us to create 50 of these scholarships? Why don’t we enable our young people? Rather than a prison pipeline, create a college pipeline. We get them into a two-year associates degree so they have a good shot at life, and you have people who are qualified to go to work in your businesses, and we can continue to attract business,” he said. “Give kids the tools to make a better life.”
Thomas said many in the community don’t have access to capital, not just to start a business, but simply get a loan or open a checking account. The speaker said that the community credit union his brother, Judge D. Kelly Thomas, has been trying to capitalize could give people opportunity.
“There are people in the audience who have issued a challenge grant,” he said. “If anyone will put $10,000 toward this fund, they’ll match it, and we could capitalize this credit union. You could help a lot of people get a job. We have the greatest place to live. I believe this scholarship fund and community credit union is something we can do together.”
The third tier of his presentation focused on educating young people on racial sensitivity. Thomas said there is a need, even now, to educate young people on racial sensitivity.
“Two months ago, Kelly and I were sitting at a Maryville High School game and a bunch of white kids made a rebel flag tunnel for the football players to go through onto the playing field, and I watched black kids have to walk under the tunnel. Kelly said, ‘We’re lucky we didn’t have a race riot.’ I’m guessing those who orchestrated the tunnel didn’t have a clue,” Buzz Thomas said.
Thomas then shared a story about a good friend of his from when he was a student in 1973 at Maryville High School. Troy Bowman was the first African American football star at Maryville High School, he said.
“In 1973, I was Mr. Maryville High School, and I was one of the people who decided to put this on the cover of our yearbook,” he said, holding up a confederate flag that was emblazoned on the yearbook cover.
Thomas said it was soon after the yearbooks were delivered that he saw Bowman in an office at the school with tears in his eyes and blood on his hands. “He was trying to scrub the flag off so he could take the yearbook home to his friends and family without feeling humiliated. I walked out, stunned. I had no idea. It’s our responsibility to help our kids understand,” he said.
In referring to the Maryville High School Red Rebels, Thomas said the term had nothing to do with the Confederacy. “We got kicked out of the TSSAA in the late ‘30s for recruiting, and, when they got back in, they were called the ‘rebels’ because we were rule breakers,” he said.
Thomas said students who wave the flag aren’t trying to make a racial statement but are simply trying to show school spirit. But, he said, African Americans were held in slavery under that flag.
“When Congress wouldn’t let us spread this cancer, we went to war, and we did it all under this flag. So when African Americans see this flag, it’s a different thing. It’s like waving a swastika in front of Jewish people,” he said. “We have to educate young people as to why this is offensive. We’ve still got a problem because we still don’t understand each other.”