(KTXL) — What makes a woman remarkable? For each of those we love, it could be 1,000 little things.
Back in December, FOX40 started asking everyone in the Sacramento Valley to tell us about the remarkable women in their lives.
Out of the huge response, FOX40 has picked four finalists who are eligible to win prizes and a national award sponsored by our parent company, Nexstar Media Group.
This is the story of Remarkable Women nominee Ethel Mae Thompson.
Lazy summer days in the Magnolia State became something very different for Ethel Mae Thompson in the late 1960s.
“We still talk about what we went through, and it’s never nothing to smile or laugh about,” Thompson said. “Just how could a human treat another human like this, and you’re kids, we’re kids.”
With her adolescence pressed up against the southern racial divide, the then-15-year-old found herself living on a block where waving at the folks across the street meant waving to civil rights icons in the making, like Jesse Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They were fighting for us, so these young kids could grow up into the different world and you could see things better, you know. And we would leave all the things that our parents and grandparents went through,” Thompson recalled. “They were trying it make it better for us.”
Targeted by the vitriol of the common man and the military might of the National Guard, the Little Rock Nine had already integrated Central High School in Arkansas.
Nine years later, Thompson was left to follow in their footsteps in her own town at John Rundle High School.
“Mess with you, talk about you, call you all kind of N-words and all this kind of stuff,” Thompson said, recalling the things she heard while in school.
“They could whisper whatever they wanted to say, didn’t make me no difference. I was still trying to learn,” she continued.
Desegregation of public facilities was required by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but two years later, that federal law had yet to be implemented in Grenada, Mississippi.
Infuriated by the current conditions limiting her rights and inspired by the chance to do something about it, Thompson got in lockstep with King — all the way to jail.
“This is at the jailhouse. They put these on, isn’t that something?” Thompson said showing a photo of herself wearing a sign. “And I had a smile on my face and the officer said, ‘Cut that out.’ ‘Cut what out?’ And he said, ‘Take that smile off your face.’ So I had to look like that.”
More than 170 other young adults were arrested right along with her, like cousin Rosie Marie, who ended up in rough conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
All of it — amid a summer hot with the desire for equality — grew from the Meredith March Against Fear to equity battles at the ballot box, and even the library. Managers of the local pool chose to close permanently rather than integrate.
“It made me the person that I am today. It made me the mother that I am today,” she continued. “It made me be a strong, Black woman that I am today and it made me feel for people.”
Thompson’s son, Paul, said he is in awe of how his mother chose to fight for him and the rights he should have long before she could’ve imagined what his face might even look like.
“It made me stronger,” he said. “It made me want to make sure that I produced the guy I’m supposed to be, the man I’m supposed to be. You know, education, just me giving back to the community, working with kids, educating the youth, and so all that coming from her transitioned to me and others.”
He’s also in awe of how the same spirit that put his mother in the streets with King pushed her to put herself through school to become a nurse after she moved to California. For decades, Thompson doled out her special brand of caring to Kaiser Permanente patients in the Modesto area.
“I love taking care of people and my mother was always in my head,” Thompson said.
After her mother lay comatose with cancer and later died from it, Thompson was left to mother her five other siblings, among them a 2-year-old, all while their father worked.
Along with trying to heal the emotional wounds caused by America’s original sin and her work healing corporal concerns, Thompson fell in love with Army Sgt. Paul Thompson Sr., a mechanical engineer.
So, the second oldest of six had kids of her own — and her son said she’s mothered dozens more.
“Seeing her in action, knowing that this is what my mom’s legacy is going to be, this is what she’s done and all the hearts and peoples she’s touched, I want to be like my mom. I want to do the same thing,” Paul Thompson said.