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Government, Politics & Issues

Former Missouri Lawmaker And Civil Rights Leader Betty Thompson Dies At 81

Betty Thompson - Photo by Wiley Price-St. Louis American.jpg
Wiley Price
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Before Betty Thompson became involved in city and state government, she was a civil rights activist, fighting for jobs for Black people at places like Jefferson Bank. She marched for fair housing beyond public housing and led rent strikes.

In the mid-1970s, Betty Thompson sought a permit from the city council to build a swimming pool in the backyard of her University City home. Her simple request was met with derision.

“Mrs. Thompson, no black person who’s ever lived on the north side of University City can possibly afford to build a swimming pool,” she recalled in her 2018 memoir, "Rising above the Battle Scars: If You Can Take It in Life, You Can Make It."

That was the spark that caused her to run for the University City City Council several years later. She won and became the city’s first African American councilwoman.

Thompson, whose life was defined by public and community service, died Sunday, July 11, 2021, of complications from diabetes.

Services are pending.

At first, her fellow aldermen saw her as “that social-service woman, that welfare-giveaway person,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1990.

That changed during 18 years on the city council. Then she was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, where she served eight years.

Great glory

With an infusion of compassion from her mother and a “get-it-done” attitude from her father, Thompson spent her life outwitting challenges.

Born prematurely, her first crib was a shoebox. Growing up in St. Louis in Carr Square Village and Pruitt-Igoe housing developments, she wore bonnets to dissuade playmates’ taunts about her total alopecia.

As conditions deteriorated and dreams faded, Thompson’s father organized the White Caps, a citizens patrol to help keep Pruitt-Igoe safe. Thompson was by his side at White Caps meetings, learning how to plan and organize.

She also got a taste of politics from her father. Thompson, along with all of her siblings, helped him distribute campaign materials for a Missouri state representative, James “Pal” Troupe.

But it was many years before Thompson considered politics herself. Instead, she chose community service.

In high school, she worked summers at a government-funded community clinic and honed her speaking skills in the Baptist church.

“Wherever there was a need, I was sure to be there,” Thompson wrote in her autobiography.

Her “greatest glory,” she said, came through her work at the Human Development Corporation, a government-funded program. She began in 1964, the year that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his war on poverty.

Her office was across the street from where she grew up, now known simply as “the projects.” The program distributed butter and cheese and other government commodities and helped people pay their utility bills and find jobs.

''My office was bombed and shot up,” she told the Post-Dispatch in 1990. “We worked in the projects when the water froze or flooded the units. We tried to keep the drug pushers and the murderers away.”

It didn’t always work.

Once, gang members threatened her life. They wrongly believed that she, along with her friend and housing co-manager, Ruby Russell, and U.S. Rep. William “Bill” Clay Sr., were telling police where they stored and sold their drugs.

She said it was all worth it as, over the years, she was often approached by people who thanked her again, usually for helping them get their first job. Among the grateful were St. Louis’ first Black mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr., and heavyweight champion brothers Leon and Michael Spinks.

Stepping up

It was the civil rights era, and Thompson joined other St. Louisans — Percy Green, Norman Seay, Charles and Marian Oldham and others — in picketing to desegregate eateries like Howard Johnson’s. They fought for jobs for Black workers at places like Jefferson Bank. She marched for fair housing beyond public housing and led rent strikes.

She also marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and developed a friendship with Coretta Scott King. For years, she led the local King support group. In 1988, Thompson was the first African American woman arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting against apartheid in South Africa.

Thompson didn’t consider a political career until her husband, Jack, an Air Force veteran who later worked as the chief of security for General Motors, was severely injured.

Following a company party in 1973, Jack broke his neck, arm and leg in a car accident. After he spent months in traction, his doctors recommended swimming as therapy.

The Thompsons decided to put a pool in the backyard of their home; the University City City Council thought otherwise.

When Thompson requested a building permit, she said council members laughed.

The incident angered her and “sparked a burning desire within me to run for city council just so I could change that.”

Several years later, she mounted a campaign with no fundraising. All she had was a legion of young people getting the word out and a 10-block parade.

She took her seat on the city council in 1980.

No 'stop' button

Thompson, a Democrat, narrowly lost a mayoral race in 1988, the same year she served as a Jesse Jackson presidential delegate. But in 1997 she won a special election to the Missouri House of Representatives. She represented District 72 in St. Louis County.

During her four, two-year terms, the maximum allowed by term limits, she served as the House’s majority whip and vice chair of the state’s Ethics Commission.

She sponsored legislation that dealt with health care, education, public utilities and housing. She helped pass bills to help prevent racial profiling.

Not generally known as a corporate supporter, Thompson “took some hits” for her support of the successful legislation to help fund the Cardinals' new stadium and Ballpark Village.

"I can handle it; I've got strong shoulders," she told the St. Louis Business Journal in 2002, citing simple economics as the reason for her support.

One bill she sponsored was personal: legislation that requires health insurance to pay for wigs for people with alopecia. The bill passed in 2003.

The summer before she entered high school, Thompson said, a family friend, Ms. Cecil, gave her her first wig. That kind gesture, she said, “opened up a whole new world for me.”

“I don’t have a ‘stop’ button,” Thompson said of her widespread legislative efforts. “I didn’t really consider myself a politician, but more so a community servant.”

Battle scars

“I don’t know why people go to jail and use their one phone call to call my mother,” Thompson recalled her son Tony musing.

He knew why. They called her because they knew she’d spent a lifetime running interference for others and had the scars to prove it — and some wounds were personal.

In "Rising Above the Battle Scars," part memoir, part inspirational, self-help manual, she devoted a chapter to the death of a son, Tyrone Thompson, and a grandson, Tyrell Thompson.

Both were victims of gun violence, a scourge she’d spent her life trying to reduce. During the trial of one of Tyrone’s killers, the young man’s mother begged for her forgiveness. Thompson told the woman that it wasn’t her fault.

With her sons Tony and Kwame; Tony’s wife, Kim; and her daughter Sonja, Thompson established the Tyrone Thompson Institute for Nonviolence.

The institute is a program of the Kwame Foundation, which provides career assistance to public school students. Thompson served as director of the foundation.

The good life

Betty Lou Bolden Thompson was born Dec. 3, 1939, in Helm, Mississippi. She was the fourth child and first daughter of William Sam Bolden Sr. and Lubirtha Bolden’s 13 children.

She was six months old when the family moved to St. Louis. Hers was one of the first families to move into the new Carr Square Village public housing complex in 1945. The family later moved to the newer Pruitt-Igoe development, where, she said, “life was good.”

Thompson attended Vashon High School for two years before transferring to Sumner High School to be with her best friend, Elaine Webb, who became her sister-in law. Tina Turner, whom she knew as Anna Mae Bullock, was in her 1958 graduating class.

She attended Harris Stowe State College and received a certificate of business from Hubbard’s Business College and a certificate of managerial management from Washington University.

In addition to 26 years at HDC and a political career, Thompson worked six years for St. Louis County government and hosted a public service program on KATZ for 25 years. She and her husband owned K&M Delivery Service.

While dancing with her future husband, a would-be rival pulled her wig from her head. She rushed from the dance floor and didn’t reappear for two hours. Jack was waiting for her and proposed.

Thompson is survived by her husband and her children, Anthony Thompson, Sonja M. Thompson-Branscom and Kwame Thompson; and seven grandchildren.

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