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Augusta Thomas

Augusta Thomas and two of her teenage friends had their hearts set on a game of Chinese checkers. But “Little Martin” balked.

They needed four to play, explained Thomas, who was born and reared in Louisville, Kentucky's largest city.

“We had to take turns putting the coal and the wood in the furnace in the cellar, and it was ‘Little Martin’s’ time to do it,” she said, grinning and eyes twinkling. “So when he went down, I locked the door.”

The impasse lasted half an hour before “Little Martin” relented and agreed to play. “But let me tell you what,” Thomas said, her grin broadening, “I got punished when I got home.”

Her “prisoner” was 17-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.

At age 85, Thomas, who has packed a union card since 1966, is still on the job as vice president for women and fair practices with the American Federation of Government Employees in Washington. She was with King in Memphis 50 years ago Wednesday.

Thomas was staying at the Memphis motel where James Earl Ray, a racist white man, murdered King with a single rifle shot fired from a nearby building. Thomas heard the gunfire, but dismissed it as a firecracker going off. 

Thomas was staying at the Memphis motel where James Earl Ray, a racist white man, murdered King with a single rifle shot fired from a nearby building. Thomas heard the gunfire, but dismissed it as a firecracker going off.

"When I found out what it really was, all I could think about was that my friend was gone,” she remembered.

Thomas first met King when she was 13. She had gone to Atlanta to live with her aunt and uncle, Minnie and the Rev. William Rowe. He was a Methodist minister and colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., a Baptist pastor.

“The pastors would meet at Little Martin’s house,” Thomas said. “It had a parlor—we called it a living room. That’s where the ministers would go. ‘Little Martin’ would always sit by the door listening to what they were saying.”

King and Thomas attended David T. Howard School. She returned to Louisville and graduated from Central Colored High School. She also went to Atlanta’s Clark University and the Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing in St. Louis.

Thomas, one of the country’s oldest union officers, was a civil rights activist before she was a labor activist.

In 1960, she journeyed to Greensboro, N.C., to join the historic lunch counter sit-ins. Angry whites spit on her and knocked her off a stool. Police arrested her twice.

Meanwhile, “Little Martin” had grown up, followed his father into the ministry, and was helping lead the growing civil rights movement.

In early 1968, King got behind 1,300 African American sanitation workers who went on strike after two members of a garbage truck crew, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed on the job. Seeking shelter from a rainstorm, they climbed into the back of their truck and were crushed to death when the trash compactor malfunctioned.

For decades, black sanitation department employees like Cole and Walker had worked long hours at low pay in dangerous conditions. All the while, they endured virulent racial prejudice in Jim Crow Memphis.

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Thomas blamed the deaths of Cole and Walker on “the racism and negativism of the city officials who treated them as less than human, who ignored the workers’ call for safety and who paid them poverty wages.” The workers also wanted a union.

As a result, “Thirteen-hundred of our brothers and sisters rose up, risked everything, and went to strike for dignity and justice, using four simple words--powerful words—‘I am a man.’”

Ultimately, the city gave in, improved salaries and safety standards and recognized the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733.

King, who returned to Memphis on April 3, did not live to see the victory.

Thomas and five other women from different Louisville unions also went to Memphis to stand in solidarity with the strikers. They checked into first floor rooms at the Lorraine Motel; King was staying on the second floor.

He was standing outside on the balcony when Ray's fatal shot struck him.

Fearing for the safety of Thomas and her friends, the manager rushed to their rooms and hurried them to the Peacock Hotel. “He told the manager of the Peacock Hotel, ‘Do not let these women leave this hotel.’”

The women turned on the TV and saw news reports of the assassination. “The manager couldn’t keep us,” Thomas said. “We had to go back to the Lorraine. But we could only go so far."

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04: Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet. (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

The night before, Thomas and the others in her group joined the crowd at Bishop Mason Temple church where King spoke. His last address went down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

“When he was making that speech, I had chills running down me,” Thomas said. “But I didn’t get to talk to him.”

In her remarks at a February union rally in Louisville, Thomas quoted from the ringing conclusion of King’s address: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Thomas admonished the crowd: “We’ve got to get to the mountaintop. We have got to work together. We’ve got to get rid of ‘45’ and some of those folks up on that hill in Washington, D.C.”

She added, “They’re running scared. We won Alabama. We won Virginia…They are afraid they are going to lose November, 2018, and we’re going to make sure they do.”

Continued Thomas: “The future of working people hangs in the balance right now. As a woman, I have seen all we have worked for inside and outside the workplace. Women are more equal on the unionized shop floor. As brothers and sisters, we bargain together to get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

[dc]“B[/dc]y joining together in unions, women, particularly women of color, have gotten closer to true equality in the workplace. Equal pay, family-friendly leave and scheduling and freedom from harassment. We must stand until we are all equals, no matter our race, no matter our gender, no matter our class. We must stand together and demand an end to this rigged system so that we all may be truly free.”

Berry Craig

Berry Craig