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The Honorable Michael Thurmond

Georgia Labor Commissioner and noted historian Michael L. Thurmond was born in Athens, Georgia, on January 5, 1953, the youngest of the nine children of Sidney and Vanilla Thurmond. For eleven years Thurmond attended all-black schools, graduating from consolidated Clarke Senior High School in 1971as co-president of the student council and holder of the 100-yard dash record. At Paine College Thurmond started a student paper, was class president, and graduated cum laude with his B.A. degree in philosophy and religion in 1975; he later graduated from the University of South Carolina Law School.

In the summer of 1975, Thurmond helped start the black Athens Voice newspaper and upon graduation from law school in 1978, published A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History. Thurmond returned to Athens to practice law and took an active role in civic affairs; in 1986, he became the first African American to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly from Clarke County since the time of Reconstruction. In 1994, Governor Zell Miller selected Thurmond to head Georgia’s transition from welfare to work. Thurmond became a distinguished practitioner and lecturer at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Thurmond became the first African American elected Georgia State Labor Commissioner in 1998; in this role he oversaw some four thousand employees while serving 90,000 families.

Thurmond chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr., Georgia State Holiday Commission, and served on the board of curators of the Georgia Historical Society. Thurmond published a second book entitled, Freedom: An African American History of Georgia. Thurmond and his wife Zola raised a daughter, Mikaya.

Accession Number

A2004.199

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/12/2004

Last Name

Thurmond

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

Clarke Central High School

Charles H. Lyons Elementary School

Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School

North Athens Elementary

Paine College

University of South Carolina School of Law

First Name

Michael

Birth City, State, Country

Athens

HM ID

THU01

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Georgia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Beaches

Favorite Quote

There Is Dignity In Work.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Georgia

Birth Date

1/5/1953

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Atlanta

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Barbecue (Ribs)

Short Description

State labor commissioner The Honorable Michael Thurmond (1953 - ) was the first African American to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly from Clarke County since Reconstruction. Later, Thurmond became the first African American elected Georgia State Labor Commissioner, an office he held for over ten years.

Employment

Georgia General Assembly

Georgia’s Welfare-to-Work Initiative

State of Georgia

University of Georgia. Carl Vinson Institute of Government

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of The Honorable Michael Thurmond's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his maternal family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond remembers his grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond talks about his father's upbringing and family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond explains how the Moore's Ford Bridge Lynching motivated his parents to move from Oconee County to Athens, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood in Athens, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his parents' meeting and educational and work experience

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond recalls studying black history at the library at the University of Georgia in Athens

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his early educational experiences in Athens, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond recalls two influential school teachers from his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond reflects on his interest in Paul Laurence Dunbar

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond recalls the impact of the Civil Rights Movement during his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his experience at Burney-Harris High School in Athens, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond recalls the closure of Burney-Harris High School to implement school integration in 1970

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond reflects on the downsides of integration in the educational system

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond explains his decision to attend Paine College in Augusta, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his last year of high school at the integrated Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his experience at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond remembers starting The Athens Voice, and attending University of South Carolina School of Law

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond remembers writing his first book, 'A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History'

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond talks about his early law career in Athens, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes winning a seat in the Georgia General Assembly by building a bi-racial coalition

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond recalls his career and eventual loss of his seat in the Georgia State Assembly

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond remembers writing 'Freedom: An African-American History of Georgia, 1733-1865'

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his accomplishments as Director of Human Services, Division of Family and Children's Services, for the State of Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes implementing welfare reform

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond talks about being elected Labor Commissioner for the State of Georgia and modernizing the state's unemployment system

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond talks about his daughter and wife

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his book, 'Freedom: An African-American History of Georgia, 1733-1865'

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond reflects upon his life

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond reflects upon the State of Georgia's centrality in African American history

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - The Honorable Michael Thurmond reflects upon his legacy and how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$3

DAStory

5$8

DATitle
The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes winning a seat in the Georgia General Assembly by building a bi-racial coalition
The Honorable Michael Thurmond describes his accomplishments as Director of Human Services, Division of Family and Children's Services, for the State of Georgia
Transcript
In 1982, I ran my first race for political office. I ran for House District 67 to the Georgia House of Representatives. I ran against an incumbent, a long serving incumbent, by the name of Hugh Logan. I was defeated, I lost that race by two hundred votes. That particular race was marred by some irregularities. We made some allegations that there were voting irregularities. Interesting about this district was that it was a majority white district. It was about 66 percent majority white and the gentleman I was running against was a white incumbent. And I was defeated in 1982 it was a very hotly contested race. I ran again in 1984, against the same gentleman and lost again. And we had problems with voting again, in that particular district, so I filed a law suit I contested the election and I went to court, arguing there were irregularities. What we did was we settled out of court though before the case was heard. And I think corrected many of the problems we had. There were no polling places in black communities, there was no community voter registration, we changed all that, and we hired more black poll workers all through the district. And in 1986 I ran again, but as state representative, same district, against the same gentleman, I lost by 200 votes in '82 [1982], I lost by 119 votes '84 [1984], and in 1986 I was elected by 200 votes. And I became the first African American elected to the Georgia General Assembly, from Clarke County [Georgia] since Reconstruction. And I was the only African American elected representing a majority white district in the Southeast. I mentioned that to rewind back to that speech when I was a senior in high school [Burney-Harris High School; Clarke Central High School, Athens, Georgia], when I stood up and gave my first speech to an integrated audience and realized that, I had some appeal or ability to lead people black and white. And interestingly enough years later, there I was, the only black in Georgia, the only one in the Southeast, one of the few in the country, representing the majority black [sic. white] legislative district in the general assembly in any state. And, looking back on it, those first two races you know there were the voting irregularities, but there was also another reason I was losing, I refused or I was afraid or I didn't have the knowledge or the skill to really go out and campaign and ask white people to vote for me. I focused all of my political efforts in my black base, in the black community. But the district was two-thirds white, and after two defeats and these problems I realized that in order to win I had to develop a biracial coalition.$$And how were you able to do that?$$Well first I had to overcome my own inhibitions, and my own fears, we all have them, you know. We live in comfort zones and one of the most difficult things for any human being to do is to desert or leave a comfort zone and move into another area. It doesn't have to be politics, it could be even an intellectual discipline, you know people get comfortable in what they know or what they believe and they resist moving in the new environment. So I had to make a decision, what was stronger my, my dreams of to hold public office or my fears or my inhibitions. And my dreams trumped my fears in that extent. And so I began to ask everybody I met to vote for me. And luckily the third time, which was in many probabilities, may have been the last time I was elected to the Georgia House.$And so two years after--I began the book ['Freedom: An African-American History of Georgia, 1733-1865,' Michael Thurmond] in '93 [1993] in '94 [1994], former governor, Zell Miller called and asked if I wanted, it was the worst job in state government, asked me if I wanted to be director of the department of family and children's services [Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Family and Children Services]. I don't know whether you know much about the child welfare and welfare and you know here I was. And so I'm out of politics, so I said okay I'd take the job. And start work on it and in 19 that was '94 [1994], late in '95 [1995], early '96 [1996], [President William Jefferson "Bill"] Clinton signs the welfare bill [Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996], to change welfare as we know it. And I'm the, I'm head of biggest welfare agency, 1.2 billion dollar agency. So, I decide that I would create something, welfare reform without the meanness. Basically welfare reform, is particularly as Republicans and others tried to articulate it was a mean spirited type of fund. I have always believed that there was dignity in work, I support work, I think work has value that extends far beyond the paychecks that people earn. And I was convinced that given a better option that people would choose work over welfare if in fact the work could provide them with the support and the resources they needed to support their family. You and I chose work over welfare, 'cause we can earn enough money doing this or more money than we can living off the government right? I mean it just that's what people do. And I believed that there were thousands, millions of people who wanted more but the government and system as it exists did not supply support or even more troubling scenario, basically needed poor people in order to continue to keep the system working. So we went about changing, we put a system together with childcare, medical coverage, transportation, it wasn't mean spirited. And, basically a hundred thousand people voluntarily decided, the same thing I decided, I want more money. You offer people a better job, if you working in one job, someone offer you another position that paid more money or provide you with greater opportunity what do you do? You go.