Michael Thurmond: ‘Never allow your fears to overcome your dreams’

This interview is from the "Five Questions for the Boss" archives. The regular column will resume next Sunday.


Poverty and welfare reform.

Exploding unemployment.

Those are just a few of the controversial issues that Michael Thurmond has tried to tackle in one of his many leadership roles. Now, Thurmond, 60, may be facing his toughest challenge as interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School District. The 99,000-student system selected Thurmond as its chief in February, following a series of high-profile problems. It’s on probation from the accreditation system, the governor replaced most of the school board, and there are lawsuits and financial issues. What’s more, he has to rebuild trust among the faculty and employees, students, parents and broader community.

Thurmond, son of a sharecropper who wrote a book on the struggle to abolish slavery in Georgia, has had a topsy-turvy political career. The former state legislator lost a congressional primary before getting tapped to head the state Division of Family and Children’s Services. He then was elected to three terms as Georgia’s labor commissioner before losing a bid for the U.S. Senate. Thurmond discusses what he’s learned from failure, as well as from leading students when an all-black high school was combined with an all-white school.

Q: How did your early years shape your life?

A: I’ve been able to track my ancestry to my great-great-grandfather, who was 8 years old when the Civil War ended. My ancestors were owned by the Thurmond family in Oconee County.

I’m the product of three generations of Georgia sharecroppers. I grew up in a secluded, rural area of Clarke County near Athens. Before I was born, my family moved from Oconee County shortly after the Moore’s Ford killings because of fear. (In 1946, a mob pulled two African-American couples out of a farmer’s car, tied them to trees, and shot and killed them.)

I’m the youngest of nine children. We were a close-knit family and everyone had a job. My father was a sharecropper, so you worked in the field. We had coal and wood stoves, so you’d bring the coal and wood into the house.

We were poor, but it was very loving. I never quite understood how people who work hard and play by the rules of the game end up poor. I think it’s unfair. They should be able to lift themselves from poverty.

Q: Before you lifted yourself, you were involved in the desegregation of your high school. What did you learn about yourself?

A: Before desegregation, my early teachers, who were all African-Americans, instilled in me and my classmates that you were getting an education not only for yourself, but on behalf of your people. They repeatedly said you had a responsibility to go out and make a difference to try to elevate yourself, your family and your race.

» Thurmond vows to improve DeKalb schools

I always pursued leadership roles in school. If there was an election for class president or student body president, I’d run. Most often, I’d win.

I was class president of an all-black high school, Burney-Harris, when it was being combined with the all-white high school, Athens, in 1970. So in my senior year, I become co-student body president with a white classmate at the combined Clarke Central High School.

It was traumatic. We lived (the film) “Remember the Titans.” Our football team was racked with racial issues.

As a co-president, at first I thought my job was to lead the black students. But racially-charged disciplinary issues arose, and I had to address all the students in an assembly. After my talk, all the students applauded.

It was an epiphany. It dawned on me that I had the ability to lead both black and white students. It was transformative because I had never had a substantive conversation with a white person until my senior year in high school.

Q: You went on to graduate from college and law school, and then got into politics. What did you learn?

A: I’m not afraid to fail and I’ve failed a lot. Never allow your fears to overcome your dreams. Successful leaders have to master the art of failing forward.

My first two campaigns for the Georgia legislature were defeats. I was trying to become the first African-American to become elected to the state legislature from Clarke County since Reconstruction. It took three elections to do that. I was the only African-American in Georgia to be elected from a majority white district.

During the first two campaigns, I only campaigned in the African-American communities and lost. I had to somehow move out of my comfort zone, partly by drawing on what I learned from my experiences at Clarke Central High School.

I was desperate. Three losses and it’s over. So I began to reach out to all the voters and, in 1986, I won.

Then, in 1992, I ran against three other Democrats in a congressional primary and came in last. I misjudged the electorate. I was not black enough for the black voters and I was not white enough for the white voters. In Georgia politics, the only thing you’ll find in the middle of the road is a dead possum, which is what I was politically.

Q: Then I guess possums have multiple lives. Two years later, you received a call from then-Gov. Zell Miller to head the state Division of Family and Children’s Services during the controversial period of welfare reform? What happened?

A: When I was growing up, my family received commodities — powdered milk and eggs — from the Division of Family and Children’s Services. I went from the kid in the waiting room of the division to actually head it. That’s the blessing of my life.

I used to tell the employees: “Be careful how you treat the little children in the waiting room. They might grow up to be your boss.”

At DFACS, I knew something — poor people want to work. They want to support their families. I was channeling my own life experiences. I said to myself that welfare reform will not be as difficult as many people think it will be. All I had to do was help create a system that allowed them to do what they want to do.

I went around the state talking to people who were very angry. Some thought welfare reform was a racial attack and lacked compassion. Others thought welfare recipients were lazy leeches.

We had to come up a plan that bridged the gap. We came up with Work First, which was not based on meanness. We helped tens of thousands of people get jobs who had been on welfare.

Q: You were then elected labor commissioner three times and served during a period of abnormally high unemployment, Now, you’re interim superintendent of DeKalb County schools at a tumultuous time. How do you approach a crisis?

A: When I walk into a leadership situation I never focus on the deficits first, because deficit-driven strategies rarely succeed. I start by evaluating the assets and documenting them.

I promise you if you do that you will have a very different perspective on the possibilities of success. The deficits will invariably appear less daunting.

Also, you must be willing to listen to people in order to lead. You have to listen with a purpose, which is higher level of listening that allows you to learn. Often, the big mistake leaders make is they come in with a pre-conceived idea of what needs to be done.

Leaders need to have compassion. You’ve got to have a tough mind and a tender heart.

Finally, history is replete with leaders who stay too long. Always leave while the audience is still applauding.

Thurmond’s remarks were edited for length and style.

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