Betty L. Thompson sat down with her granddaughter Kayla Thompson in the Sunnen Lounge Thursday night, as the junior anthropology major asked her grandmother questions about her life.
“My grandmother has always been such an inspiration in my life,” Kayla Thompson said.
Former Missouri State Representative Betty L. Thompson spoke about her life as a St. Louis civil rights activist at the event “Trials of a Trailblazer: A Discussion with Betty Thompson.” The discussion was held at 7 p.m. on Jan. 19 in the Sunnen Lounge as part of the Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs’ (MCISA) Social Movements Week, held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“I wanted to share my grandmother’s legacy with Webster because many students are not aware that we have civil rights leaders in St. Louis,” Kayla Thompson said. “My grandmother has always been such an inspiration in my life. I remember when I was much younger I would be with her at protests, sit-ins and taking trips down to Atlanta, where she was friends with the late Coretta Scott King.”
Betty Thompson was born in a small Mississippi town in 1939, as one of 13 children. When she was three months old, her family moved to St. Louis, where she lived in housing projects including Carr Square Village and Pruitt-Igoe. Betty Thompson described her childhood as a wonderful time.
“Everyone went to school and played together. It was like one big family,” Betty Thompson said.
She described her mother as her biggest influence.
“My mother was a loving woman. She never drank, smoke, cursed or messed around. And I followed her example,” Betty Thompson said.
Betty Thompson went to Vashon and Sumner High School with music legend Tina Turner. She often walked with Turner to class.
“At the time, Tina — I knew her as Anna Mae Bullock — was pregnant and not allowed to graduate,” Betty Thompson said. “So me and a few students organized and tried to fight for Tina to graduate, but the counselor said no.”
After graduating from Sumner in 1958, Betty Thompson attended Harris-Stowe State University. She received a certificate in business from Hubbard’s Business College and a certificate in management from Washington University.
Despite her own educational success, Betty Thompson said she saw other African-Americans who weren’t treated fairly. When she heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at a local church, she began to organize marches, pickets and sit-ins.
“Dr. King spoke the truth and things needed to change for the African-American community,” Betty Thompson said.
But it was her political career that allowed Thompson to change how St. Louisans saw African-Americans, especially African-American women.
While living in University City, Betty Thompson’s husband Jack was in a car accident. With his neck badly injured, doctors advised him to swim to aid his recovery. When Betty Thompson went to the City Council to get a permit to build a pool, the council laughed at her.
“They told me that no black person on the north side of University City could afford a swimming pool,” Betty Thompson said. “That fueled me to run for City Council.”
Betty Thompson began her campaign without any fundraising. She held a parade in University City, which covered approximately 10 blocks. The parade helped her win the 1980 election against a white engineer. She was the first African-American to be on University City’s City Council, and served on the board for 18 years.
In 1988, Betty Thompson was the first African-American woman to be arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting against apartheid in South Africa.
“South Africa was a country that didn’t have rights until 1994, but I believe all people have rights,” Betty Thompson said.
Throughout her career, Betty Thompson won many awards, including the M.L. King Spirit Award from the University City School Board and City Council, and the Gwen Giles Award.
Currently, Betty Thompson serves as the director of the Kwame Foundation, which provides career assistance to young African-Americans. She also supports non-violence through her organization The Tyrone Thompson Institute for Non-Violence. The organization is a living testament to Betty Thompson’s son, Tyrone Thompson, who was killed during an attempted robbery in 2010.
Betty Thompson closed the evening by offering a piece of advice. “You can do anything. Just put your mind to it and you can do it.”