My intersection with the civil rights movement came during the summer of 1964 in Vicksburg, Mississippi where I registered voters for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Being a historic Civil War battleground, Vicksburg depended on tourism to keep its economy afloat, and the local white population didn't want any bad publicity. They liked to talk about how everyone got along in Vicksburg. But some of the roads I canvassed in residential Vicksburg weren't even paved. The word was out, though, and I was welcomed in at every home I visited. For the entire 6 or so weeks leading up to the first MFDP precinct elections, I can remember only one or two people who declined to register when given the opportunity. In virtually every household there was someone who courageously signed his or her name to the MFDP registration form. Change was in the air and people wanted to be part of it.
Returning to California at the end of that summer I soon found myself with a draft classification of 1-A and on track for a likely tour of duty in Viet Nam. After much consideration I concluded it was both my personal and patriotic duty to oppose the war in any way I could. At this point the realities of life shifted my focus from the civil rights movement to draft resistance. I obeyed the law as far as my conscience would allow — all the way into the Ceremony Room at the Oakland induction center — where I engaged in an act of civil disobedience by refusing to take the step forward when my name was called. Eventually I had a jury trial in Federal court, was found guilty of violating the selective service laws, and thought I was headed to prison for 3 to 5 years. But Judge Robert Peckham decided to throw my case out on a technicality and I walked free.
After seeing the MFDP turned away at Atlantic City, and after seeing "The United States of America vs. Patrick M. Thomas" written on the federal indictment for my draft case, I needed a break from mainstream America. I seized the opportunity to join The Farm community during its initial year (1971) in Summertown, Tennessee — a collective attempt to build a rural town from the ground up, keeping only what we chose to keep from the world around us, and designing our own institutions as needed. At its peak The Farm was home to over 1,000 people, all dedicated to the proposition that personal differences can be resolved without resort to violence. The Farm has evolved over the years, but it is still ongoing. Historically it made a mark in several ways, in part just by demonstrating that the centuries-old heritage of intentional communities in America can still take root in a modern world.
After 13 years I left The Farm to attend Vanderbilt Law School, and have practiced law in the Nashville area for over 25 years. To me it has been an ongoing exercise in nonviolent conflict resolution. Today I spend most of my lawyering time working with individuals and families on end-of-life legal issues. I am happily married with 3 grown children.
Looking back on the Mississippi Summer Project, I am in awe of those leaders who had the vision and courage to dream up and launch, in the state of Mississippi as it was then, one of the most creative and large-scale nonviolent assaults on racial injustice to arise out of the civil rights movement.
June 2, 2014