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From Selma to Thelma

“Love and respect is where we must make our first stand.” —Thelma Williams, July 2016

Thelma Williams, Judy Maggio and Lynda Coleman (photo courtesy of Lynda Coleman)

Thelma Williams is weary of rhetoric and ready for action. The 75-year-old Austin poet and plumber captured a standing-room-only crowd with her call to action.

“I’m so tired of everyone sitting around moaning and groaning,” Thelma passionately proclaimed to the audience at the #ATXTogether Civic Summit at KLRU. “You don’t need to go to the city council…you can go to your neighborhood association and get to work. GET TO WORK! That’s the only way we are going to solve our problems.”

Ron Oliveira and Thelma Williams (© 2016 Michael Lewis Global Photography. All Rights Reserved.)

Getting to work is a long haul when it comes to building trust and trying to bridge the racial divide. But it sure beats sitting back and feeling helpless while hate and violence make us anxious, angry and afraid.

Those of us who who planned ATXTogether realize it’s only a start to a vital community conversation—but we have to start somewhere. I was delighted to hear Thelma’s feedback on the Civic Summit, knowing she wouldn’t hesitate to speak her mind. She called it dynamic. “The people who came…came to listen. White people are finally listening to our hurt and no one ever paid attention to our hurt before,” Thelma says. “You can’t cure hurt unless you walk through it and express it.”

She vividly recalls living in a segregated Austin. She and her family were sharecroppers near Manor. Her mother eventually worked as a maid in Austin and earned $20 a week. Though education wasn’t stressed in her family, Thelma went to college, worked as a pipe-fitter and plumber and is now a poet and public speaker.

Thelma wasn’t able to participate in major civil rights marches in Selma and Washington, D.C., but she did her part here at home. She was one of two African Americans who helped integrate the old Texas Theater across from The University of Texas and spoke out against discrimination.

Thelma Williams isn’t big on social media—he prefers talking to people in person. I feel the same way, Thelma! In my mind, this grandmother embodies what ATX Together is all about. Let’s give each other a safe space to listen with open hearts and minds.

“Everybody ought to know everyone else’s history,” Thelma told me.“If we understand the hurt and the history, we can get past it and move on together."

Let’s keep shining the light on what’s working to bring us together instead of what’s driving us apart. It’s an uphill battle, but unless we band together and start that steep climb, we may never reach that elusive mountain top.


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