Myrtis (Reynolds) Thomas had no way of knowing that the little boy in short pants who visited her hometown of Covington, Ga., during summers, and climbed over and hid under the pews at her church, would one day grow up to be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., architect of the civil rights movement.
Even in his play — stickball and fishing with a cane pole, along with his younger brother A.D. — King’s leadership qualities were very much evident, the former director of Akron’s Head Start program said, laughing at the remembrance.
Had he lived, Dr. King would have celebrated his 85th birthday on Jan. 15.
Today is the federal holiday that honors the legacy of the man who led this country’s civil rights movement from 1950 until his assassination in 1968, ending the legal segregation of African-Americans. He played major roles in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Younger generations know him through his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
A 30-foot statue of the civil rights icon on the National Mall in the nation’s capital was dedicated on Oct. 16, 2011. Thomas, a self-described Amtrak traveler, says it’s on her “bucket list.”
Flanked by friends of all races, the 92-year-old Thomas — a longtime Stow resident who recently relocated to the Arbors of Fairlawn — recalled with great clarity the two brothers, “who were both a little on the chubby side and for a time they could almost pass for twins. They were real cute! … You could see back then that Martin was always the leader, always someone to try to keep up with.”
Her brother Johnnie, 19 months her junior, was charged with trying to keep the King boys in line during their visits to Covington, where their uncle, the Rev. Joel L. King, was pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
“They liked to wander off to play in unknown places, which could be dangerous,” she said, referring to the extremely segregated South. So it was a tall order for Johnnie, she teased, referring to the twosome as “typical PKs — preacher’s kids.”
By her own admission, Thomas was not so much invested in the King brothers’ activities, as her interest at the time was in “older boys.”
The King family lived in Atlanta where little Martin’s father pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church. “I think they sent the boys to Covington for the summers to be exposed to the country,” Thomas surmised, adding that their older sister Christine didn’t come, or at least she didn’t stay for long periods.
“I have to say that it was an honor to know someone who gave so much to society; although I knew him at a time when I didn’t know what direction his life was going,” she continued. For that matter she wasn’t sure of her own future.
“That’s why I think it’s so important to nurture children. To let them be kids, yes; but to engage them in as many activities as possible,” she said, falling back on what she knows from her background as a school teacher and the early director of Akron’s Head Start.
She took over in 1968, following Abbie Willacy, who wrote the original Head Start preschool program for low-income Akron schools, and Esther Spruill, who headed it up for a year. Thomas served as director until 1988.
Head Start came out of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program, beginning in the summer of 1965. The idea was to narrow the achievement gap between income-disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds and middle-to-higher-income children.
Akron’s Head Start — federally funded and initially under the umbrella of Akron Public Schools — is today under the auspices of Akron Summit County Community Action Inc. Unfortunately, it’s in jeopardy of losing its funding.
“Funding was shaky back then,” Thomas remembered. “There were a lot of times when we would have to pack up the center, put everything in storage until we would get word it had been funded again … But somehow we always managed to survive.” She’s prayerful that hope for Head Start will again spring eternal.
Coming to Akron
Thomas finished her first year of college at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama but didn’t have the money to continue. She was nonetheless able to teach in the rural South without a degree.
She ended up in Akron because “my grandparents lived here and I came up to attend my grandmother’s funeral … I had no intentions of staying. But my uncle persuaded me. So, I worked with my aunt, serving parties and working various jobs to pay my way through Akron U.”
She also managed to carve out her own place in local history.
Thomas is widowed with no biological children, but speaks passionately and with a sense of ownership about the children in her family and those she helped nurture through Head Start.
A woman of regal bearing, Thomas — with white hair and a wrinkle-free, coffee-with-cream complexion that belies her age — rattled off the names of local Head Start graduates who went on to success: “Bruce Alexander, who was one of the early graduates of Akron’s Head Start, is the director of Summit County Juvenile Detention Services and vice president of the Akron Board of Education.”
She added, “Head Start not only focuses on the children but on their parents, who may need help and training, too.”
Former Head Start nurse Joyce Smith and teacher/social worker Nancy Jackson were among those who stopped by to visit this day.
“It’s always like that,” Thomas said. “The folks in Head Start are a close-knit family.”
Asked what advice she would have for those looking for ways to spend today’s Martin Luther King holiday, Mrs. Thomas embraces the day of service idea:
“I would like to see more people spend time with teenagers, explaining to them what the legacy of Dr. King means, why we celebrate him. … So many of these kids don’t have a clue.”
Secondly, Thomas said she would encourage parents, if they don’t already do so, to use the day to jump-start a regular reading program in their homes: “Spend an hour each evening reading to your young children. … Any gift I’ve ever given to a child was always a book. I have a niece who is a news anchor in Dallas who still says ‘Aunt Myrtis is the one who always gave us books.’ ”
Freedom, she sermonized, is achieved through education.
Love of history
These days the book she’s the most fond of is one about her family history. “I’m like the family historian,” she was proud to say. “We have a family reunion every two years. This year it will be in Ohio in July and we’ll have about 150 to 200 descendants … There’s just so much history to pass down. My great-grandfather was a slave who settled in Georgia. That’s something worth passing on.”
A deeply religious woman, Thomas is an active member of the Stow Community Church family, where sisters Leah Phillips, Sandy Pyles, Judy Valovcik and Connie Myers also attend Wednesday morning prayer service with her. Pyles, Phillips and Valovcik, who were among those on hand for my visit with Thomas, presented her with a beautiful cross: “Something to keep close to you,” was their message.
“We love, love her,” Phillips said. “I think it was love at first sight … We didn’t find out until last night about her knowing Dr. King as a child. We were already impressed with her.”
Carol Zeh, lay pastor at Stow Community Church, said she has long been fascinated by Thomas’ varied life experiences: “I talk to her every chance I get. She’s such a humble person, a real gem — well-educated and well-traveled. She says, shares things so casually. That she knew Dr. King as a child is just another facet of her life.”
Back on the subject of Head Start, clasping her beautifully sparkling manicured nails with Funny Bunny polish, Thomas implored families to nurture their children when they’re young and to instill in them a love of learning. Parents, after all, are their children’s first teachers.
For you just never know what a treasure, what a game changer, what a positive influence on the world that child may grow to become.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.