“I believe in helping anybody who can’t help themselves. When I see someone – I don’t care if they’re male or female, white or black, Democrat or Republican. If they need help and can’t help themselves, then I want to help them. That’s why I went to Greensboro. That’s why I sat on that stool day after day. To help those four young men when they needed help.”
Oct. 14 of every year is Augusta Thomas Day. It’s the day that AFGE celebrates the life and legacy of our civil rights icon who dedicated her life advocating for racial equality and union rights. It’s also the day of community service, the day we find ways to give back to our communities, to help those who cannot help themselves, as inspired by the life and legacy of Augusta Thomas.
Ms. Augusta, as she was affectionately called by members close to her, was AFGE’s National Vice President for Women and Fair Practices Emeritus. She was born in Kentucky during segregation. At the age of 13, she moved to Atlanta, where she was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After graduating Central Colored High School in Louisville, Augusta attended Clark University in Atlanta and Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing in St. Louis.
In 1960, Ms. Augusta defied the warnings of her husband and father and drove with her sister from Louisville to Greensboro, N.C., where Black college students were staging sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation. Thomas was fair-skinned, and she was attacked by segregationists who thought she was white. They spat on her and knocked her off the stool. She was arrested twice.
In 1966, Ms. Augusta entered the federal government as a nursing assistant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Louisville, Ky. She joined AFGE on her first day on the job.
In April 1968, 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis after two members of a garbage truck crew were crushed to death by a malfunctioned truck. Ms. Augusta and Dr. King crossed paths again in the Tennessee city where both stood in solidarity with the strikers. She and five other women from different unions were in their first-floor rooms at the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King was shot dead by a racist white man on a second-floor balcony.
Her legacy at AFGE
As National Vice President for Women and Fair Practices, Ms. Augusta was instrumental in shaping the future and policies of our union.
She established the Y.O.U.N.G. (Young Organizing Unionists for the Next Generation) program to include and promote younger workers within AFGE and the labor movement. She established the AFGE Pride program to make AFGE a safe zone for all AFGE members within this union believing that an injustice to one community is an injustice to all. She actively promoted voter protection to make sure that every vote was counted.
She was a civil rights leader and activist whose motto was “Do for those who cannot do for themselves.” In 2016, Ms. Augusta was honored by the International Civil Rights Museum and Center with the Sit-In Participants Award for her work during the civil rights movement.
Ms. Augusta passed away in October 2018 at the age of 86. A few months later, AFGE’s National Executive Council proclaimed Oct. 14 of every year to be AFGE’s Augusta Y. Thomas Day – a day dedicated to community service and reflection of the life of a leader that inspires us all to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
In recognition of her work on civil, human, and workplace rights, AFGE’s 6th District developed the Augusta Thomas Humanitarian Award, which is presented every three years to an AFGE member who comes closest to following Thomas’s example.
Ms. Augusta also was recognized by the Commonwealth of Kentucky for her efforts to promote racial equality and economic development, declaring April 4th as Augusta Thomas Day.
“I can see Augusta now, organizing the angels, building a movement,” said Jeremy Lannan, who succeeded Ms. Augusta as National Vice President for Women and Fair Practices. “The best way for us to honor her legacy is to find a way to help somebody, whether it be a family member, a friend, or even a complete stranger, help them for Augusta.”
Today, we ask all of our AFGE members to honor Sister Augusta by committing to at least one act of kindness and “Do for those who cannot do for themselves.” Whether you decide to volunteer at the homeless shelter, help a veteran, or maybe even pay for someone’s groceries at the grocery store, if you do so with a genuine love and compassion for helping others, then you are doing so the Augusta Y. Thomas way.