From the archive: Minister's challenge is to inspire next generation to carry on

Editor’s Note: This story was published on Jan. 15, 2007.

The Rev. Nelson Thompson relaxes on his couch, discussing how he became a civil rights advocate.

When he was 5 years old, he remembers, his mother took him downtown for the American Royal Parade. It was around 1950.

They popped into a diner for hot dogs. They stood by the counter as they ate. Blasts of cold air chilled them whenever the door opened."Mama, why don’t we sit down?" he asked his mother.

He pauses."She was a little emotional, " he says.

He stops talking. "I’m sorry, " he says, his voice choking, and he reaches behind his glasses to brush away tears."

She said, ‘Black people can’t sit down here. But you are going to change that.’

"His experience -- and how that humiliation still hurts a half-century later -- helps explain Thompson’s passionate belief in ensuring Kansas City celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday each January.As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Kansas City chapter, "Fuzzy" Thompson has become practically synonymous with the week of events.

But his experience also illustrates the challenge Thompson’s over-60 generation faces in attracting newer generations to honor King in the future. The younger people didn’t live through the same severe, sanctioned segregation.

Thompson long has led planning for events such as the annual SCLC Mass Celebration of King’s life at St. Stephen Baptist Church, where thousands will show appreciation for King’s fight for equality.

Now, Thompson is loosening the planning reins a little, especially as he recovers from receiving a kidney last month.

"I have to stay on top of everything, " he said. "... But I’m trying to get more younger people who can play that role."Make that "roles."

Thompson, 62, has held numerous community leadership posts since he graduated from St. Paul School of Theology in the 1970s.

He created and ran the now-closed Martin Luther King Jr. Center for needy children at 15th Street and Garfield Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., his hometown. He served as president of the Kansas City Human Relations Commission. He served as pastor of Mason Memorial United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Kan., until retiring two years ago. At the Freedom Inc. political organization, Thompson leads the committee that makes endorsement recommendations to the Freedom board.

He often speaks out against discrimination, whether it was unequal treatment of black shoppers or a lack of jobs for minority contractors.

"Reverend Thompson is always in the community helping out, " said 40-year-old Tanya Atkinson, who worked at Thompson’s King Center and now helps organize some of the King tributes.

Thompson, she said, "is just about civil rights. Bottom line, he’s about justice."

Thompson said he embraces a wide view of justice, not just opposing racist attitudes toward African-Americans. Justice means supporting economic equality and fighting mistreatment of any oppressed people -- other ethnic minorities, women, gay and lesbian people, or residents of foreign countries harmed by what he sees as American exploitation.

Sometimes his views don’t endear him to some other ministers, especially when, early on, he championed the cause of more AIDS awareness in the black community and recognizing the human dignity of gay and lesbian people.

In 1989, he helped lead the making of a local TV public service announcement about AIDS among black people. In 1991, he attended a Kansas City Gay Pride parade.

His embrace of AIDS as an issue showed the "compassionate" side of Thompson, said lawyer Taylor Fields, SCLC’s vice president and a close friend."He worked to make sure that those people are really accepted into society and not discriminated against, " Fields said. "... He really showed his character in that he stood by his convictions."

And he has taken stands against educational inequality, poverty and high crime rates in the central city.

Unfortunately, those problems haven’t been solved. Crime has worsened, he believes, because of today’s gun culture among undereducated, underemployed black youths.

But he believes Kansas City has made strides on some of the problems King and the civil rights movement tried to alleviate. The city is a better place in terms of race relations and equality than when he was a child, he said.

In 1944, when his mother went to give birth to him at a Kansas City hospital, black people had to go in and out through a back door, he said. Now, Thompson sits on the board of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City."We’ve made a lot of gains, " he said.

For example, he said, the community has elected two black congressmen, and Kansas City chose a black mayor. And women served as mayors of Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., as well as chief executive of Jackson County, at the same time.

But politics has created some problems for Thompson recently.

Freedom Inc. supported Charles Wheeler in the Democratic primary for Jackson County executive last year. Former county executive Katheryn Shields backed Wheeler, too. Shields had approved thousands of dollars in county money to support SCLC’s King celebration activities.

Wheeler lost in the primary, and Mike Sanders, who beat him, now is the county executive.

Sanders just took office, but he already has begun rethinking the county’s financial support of the King celebration.

The County Legislature now is sending the $60,000 in King celebration money to United Inner City Services, not Thompson’s SCLC. The money still will indirectly support SCLC, because the man who heads United Inner City Services is on the SCLC board.

But the change infuriates Thompson. And it raises the prospect of future problems with gaining county funding for the celebration.

Sanders has said he wants to ensure that financial controls are in place to make sure tax dollars are spent wisely.

Another reason for concern with the future of the SCLC King celebration lies in the generation gap that may prevent new people from stepping in with the same passion and dedication of longtime leader Thompson.

SCLC board member Judy Hellman said Thompson’s strength and drive make it hard for friends to say no when he asks them for help with the celebration.

He’s always "making plans and making arrangements and choosing menus and writing letters for funding and making calls, " she said."I don’t want to diminish everyone else’s contributions, but it just wouldn’t happen without him doing it. All that time and all that effort. You couldn’t work that hard at something that wasn’t that important to you."