The Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson, a United Methodist minister who dedicated his life to dismantling the barriers of racism, inequality and discrimination, died early Sunday. He was 70.
For decades, Thompson was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and was the leading force behind the annual citywide celebration commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Thompson and fellow organizers said the Kansas City celebration was the largest and most attended in the nation.
“We used to say ‘outside of Atlanta’ to be polite,” the Rev. Robert Lee Hill said Sunday, referring to King’s hometown. “We don’t brag. We take pride in what Fuzzy established.”
The annual series of programs honoring the slain civil rights leader began Thursday and will conclude Jan. 19.
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Thompson was involved in numerous civil rights battles on the local, national and international level.
“There have been some challenges and difficulties over the years, but I have enjoyed them all and I would not change anything about my journey,” Thompson said in a 2012 interview. “I did things that weren’t always popular, but I felt compelled to do them.”
His death was felt at Sunday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Service that Thompson founded and the Rev. Hill of the Community Christian Church helped to lead. One chair on the platform was left vacant to honor the man who established the service.
“There’s a hole in my heart today,” said Judy Hellman, of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, who co-led the event with Hill.
In recent years, Thompson battled a number of health-related maladies. He received a kidney transplant in November 2006 and was repeatedly hospitalized in recent months. Thompson was under hospice care at the time of his death.
Friends and fellow clergy said Thompson was fearless leader who unflinchingly served his community.
“Even during his illness, his support for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference never wavered,” said longtime friend and fellow United Methodist minister, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “While he had to step down, he was still working to help others, even as his own health was failing.”
The Rev. John Modest Miles said Thompson lived his life as he said others should, by embracing all people.
“He intermingled with everybody,” Miles said, “whether they were Jews, Protestants, whatever race. He was close to them. Nobody was like Fuzzy. We’re going to miss him.”
Thompson was born in Kansas City, Kan. He was 6 months old when a relative joked about a little patch of hair on top the infant Thompson’s head. The relative said the hair looked like fuzz and the nickname “Fuzzy” was created and stuck for the rest of his life.
“There were few people who knew my real name or ever called me Nelson,” he said in 2012.
As a youth, Thompson said, he felt the sting of racism when he and his mother were not allowed to sit and eat a hot dog at the lunch counter of a downtown department store after watching the annual American Royal parade.
“It was a slight that stayed with me for the rest of my life,” Thompson said. “My mother said there was nothing she could do about it at the time but I would when I grew older.”
It was one of several incidents that Thompson said led him to a life of social and political activism.
When Thompson was 16, his family moved to Kansas City. He attended public school and graduated from Central High School. From there, Thompson attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education. He went on to receive a master’s degree and then a doctorate in divinity from St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.
Between 1968 and 1971, Thompson taught general science, physical education and biology at Central High School. Thompson became an ordained deacon in the United Methodist church in 1972. He later was named executive director of the Martin Luther King Urban Center in Kansas City, Kan., and served in that capacity for 30 years.
“His whole life was committed to the civil rights movement and he gave great leadership toward that cause,” said the Rev. Sam Mann, whose friendship with Thompson spanned four decades. The two frequently traveled in support of civil and human rights causes.
In 1980, Thompson accompanied a University of Kansas professor who organized a group of religious leaders to visit Iran and minister to hostages during the hostage crisis there.
At the height of the anti-apartheid movement, Thompson traveled to South Africa as a guest of Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Of the visit, Thompson said he was deeply touched to see the blacks there seek the same freedoms that African-Americans had struggled and eventually gained.
He returned to South Africa later and witnessed the first time black residents cast ballots for president.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” Thompson said.
Back home, three Kansas City mayors appointed Thompson to the city’s Human Rights Commission, where he eventually served as chairman. Missouri Gov. Bob Holden appointed Thompson to the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, where he also was chairman.
“Fuzzy was a tireless, cheerful, hardworking advocate for so many people who did not have a voice,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a statement. “He spread his big smile, his warm heart, and the message of the Gospel everywhere he went. He was the very best kind of community leader, and I’m proud he was my friend.”
Survivors include his wife, Cheryl Thompson.