When Norman Thomas died in 1968, the New York Times called him “the nation’s conscience for social justice and social reform” (Whitman, “Norman Thomas”). On the occasion of Thomas’ 80th birthday, Martin Luther King wrote: “I can think of no man who has done more than you to inspire the vision of a society free of injustice and exploitation” (King, “The Bravest”). King praised Thomas for speaking out on behalf of oppressed peoples of all kinds, including black sharecroppers, interned Japanese Americans during World War II, and imprisoned conscientious objectors.
Thomas was born in Marion, Ohio, in 1884, into a family of Presbyterian ministers and abolitionists. After graduating from Princeton in 1905, Thomas became a settlement worker in New York City. Ordained in 1910, he became pastor to an East Harlem church serving poor immigrants. At the outbreak of World War I, Thomas joined the nascent Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the American Union Against Militarism. By 1918, he was secretary of FOR, editor of FOR’s journal The World Tomorrow, and served on the executive board of the American Union. During his tenure with the American Union he co-founded its civil liberties bureau, which later became the American Civil Liberties Union.
Thomas’ anti-war activism led to his involvement with the Socialist Party of America. Thomas resigned from his church and FOR positions and became associate editor of The Nation magazine. In 1922 he co-directed the League for Industrial Democracy, the education wing of the Socialist Party. Four years later he was spokesman for the party and campaigned for office 15 times between 1924 and 1948, including 6 bids for the presidency.
In the 1950s Thomas denounced with equal vehemence communism and the methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations of alleged Communist influence in the American Left threatened activist groups throughout the country. In the first weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, Thomas met with civil rights and union leaders to explore the possibility of organizing northern support for King’s movement. Thomas wrote King in March 1956: “I am of the opinion that the intrusion of Northerners in Montgomery will do more harm than good but if there is any help that I can give in the country, I should like to know it” (Papers 3:206).
In the following years King and Thomas collaborated on many projects. After King was arrested on a minor tax charge in 1960, Thomas cosigned a fundraising advertisement that eventually led to the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case. Thomas testified before the Senate in support of the 1963 civil rights bill, which became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King and Thomas worked together on the board of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
In 1965 King chronicled Thomas’ career in an article titled “The Bravest Man I Ever Met.” In the article, King recounted an anecdote from the March on Washington: “A little Negro boy listened at the Washington Monument to an eloquent orator. Turning to his father, he asked: ‘Who is that man?’ Came the inevitable answer: ‘That’s Norman Thomas. He was for us before any other white folks were’” (King, “The Bravest”).
King considered it his “good fortune” to work with Thomas both in the cause of racial equality and in the attainment of social justice for all minorities everywhere (King, “The Bravest”). Throughout his many years of activism, Thomas published more than 20 books and authored hundreds of articles. His 70th, 75th, and 80th birthday gatherings were gala events for the American Left.
Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” 29 March 1960, in Papers 5:382.
King, “The Bravest Man I Ever Met,” Pageant (June 1965): 23–29.
Thomas to King, 23 March 1956, in Papers 3:206.
Alden Whitman, “Norman Thomas: The Great Reformer, Unsatisfied to the End,” New York Times, 22 December 1968.