Reverend Thomas Gilmore died earlier this
month in Birmingham after a brief illness.
We honor the memory of Reverend Gilmore, Civil Rights Movement veteran
and Greene County’s one-time sheriff without a gun, by sharing portions of his
June 20, 2000 interview for the BCRI Oral History Project. This is a post in two parts.
Thomas Gilmore was born in Forkland, Alabama
where the Tombigbee and the Warrior Rivers come together and flood the region
every year. Gilmore grew up with his grandmother, aunts, and uncles on a 40
acre farm that his grandmother always reminded him had been bought by his great
grandparents who had come out of slavery.
folk owned the land and I was always told, ‘Boy, you are not growing up on white
property. This is our property. Soon as you get big and older, you get you
some, because mama may have, papa may have, but God bless the child that has
his own.’ (12) The home was held together by a strong, firm,
small lady who was tough as iron and as smart as she could be. She was very
wise for someone with a fifth grade education and was able to see her children
rise to the highest. (13) It was a small farm that really did not supply all
our needs. So we found ourselves working on the plantation and with other
people to subsidize what we needed. So, we did frequent the plantation. I know
that life. But it’s a different life
when you’ve got somewhere to go back to. (14) I grew up in a deep rural society
all around the plantation psychology or syndrome, but I was blessed to just
come to understand…you can grow up in the project, but you don’t have to have
the project grow up in you. (15)
Gilmore encountered the same discrimination
and racism faced by all of the black people in his community growing up. When
he got older he became involved with the movement for civil rights, and he credits
the murder of his contemporary Emmett Till as the moment that prompted him to
join the cause.
debt. It really was racism and a very wicked and diabolical system. I think that while it was practiced here, it
was practiced all around and it was sort of understood by the government who
did not protect its citizens from that kind of evil. It made you grow quick.
Even children felt it, because it interfered with the things that they wanted.
They wanted new clothing when they went into school. So, it affected the whole
On his middle school experience: My
grandmother always pushed me out on the road to walk a mile to the store for
her. These puny looking white boys stopped me and said, ‘Hey, boy, you got any
sisters?’ I said, ‘No, there are no girls in here.’ They said, Can you get me
one?’ I told them I couldn’t. It leaves
a bitter taste in my mouth about that time. White men used to take advantage of
black women, and white women used to use black men at that time. (17) The
thing that really brought me around to… know in my own heart that things were
not right anywhere for Blacks was when Emmett Till was murdered. We were the
same age. That’s the first time that I
gave serious thought to the world and to relate it to me. I saw myself as
Emmett Till, thinking the same thing could happen. From that day on I wanted to
do something. (17).
Gilmore attended Greene County Training School
for high school. He played football and enjoyed his experience there, but he
felt the call to become a minister and fight for civil rights. Gilmore accepted
the call to be a preacher in 1959 and went off to college in Selma. When he was
going into college, Davey Pruitt was shot by a white person and Gilmore was
involved in trying to get the case into court. They got the case to the Grand
Jury, but that was all.
Gilmore engaged with the religious life of
people in his community in the time before he went to college. About 15 people,
his grandmother and a few other ladies from the community, would meet with him
to talk about the Sunday School lesson on Saturday afternoon for 30 minutes.
They would play softball and have some cookies and Kool-Aid.
Describing life at the time of high school: Whites were strong enough to try to box you
into your world. Every now and then you would step out of it. (18) I
accepted the call to be a preacher. I was impacted by the poor people that were
up on the plantation that went to school with me for most of my life. I wanted
to at least convey some civil rights into them. (19)
** Special thanks to Elizabeth Spenst, Yale University sophomore and BCRI volunteer, for thoughtfully selecting these quotes from Reverend Gilmore’s 22-page interview transcript.