Jan 15, 2021

A lesson in courage: Civil rights activist shares her experience joining Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in historic march for equality

Courage is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. It is this word that perfectly defines Thelma Brooks’ journey as a civil rights activist in the 1960s.

Growing up in the segregated south, Brooks – the mother of PPL’s Monica Brooks – was no stranger to inequity and injustice. Because even though the constitution said that all men are created equal, she was not completely free.

As a young teacher at Selma University in Alabama, she bore witness to the horror of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, in Selma, more than 600 of her “brothers and sisters” were violently restrained and attacked for peacefully marching for Black voting rights. These events shocked the nation and fueled the fight against racial injustice.

“That Sunday afternoon, I looked out of my window and saw ambulances and cars bringing people to the hospital,” said Brooks, who watched from the window of her dormitory. “I was petrified, but it gave me a sense of being courageous. I knew I had to intervene in some way because I am my brother’s keeper.”

Later that month, Brooks would have the chance.

“I had the opportunity to be with Martin Luther King Jr. when he instituted the march from Selma to Montgomery. During 1964 to 1965, Dr. King held mass meetings at churches around the city, and I went to those even though I was afraid.

“He was so organized and nonviolent, and he really cared for people — he had compassion for people. He taught us not only how to march and stand up for what we believe in, but to do so in a nonviolent way. He taught us to persevere and not give up, and we would be strong and courageous to fight the fight. I’m so blessed to have met him and been in his presence during that particular time,” said Brooks.

On March 24, 1965, Brooks joined thousands in a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in a nonviolent demonstration to achieve voting rights for Black people. Brooks joined the march from the St. Jude campus, which hosted the Stars for Freedom rally on the night of March 24, the final night of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

“We camped overnight to start the march to the state Capitol early the next morning. There were entertainers from all over the country. Martin Luther King told us that no matter what happened just to stay focused, remain courageous and keep your eyes straight ahead. I could see people on top of buildings and on the street, even women and children, waving confederate flags and calling us all sorts of names, but we kept marching. When we got to the Capitol, Martin Luther King presented to the governor our needs for voting rights. It was very exciting and scary, but we had the courage to keep on pushing,” said Brooks.

When asked what kept her going, Brooks says courage – and the teachings of King. His messages of peaceful civil rights progress resonated deeply within her.

The events of March 24, 1965, along with others, helped lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

These experiences shaped Brooks then, and they continue to inspire her daughter today.

“The thing that I hear most in my mom’s story is courage and perseverance,” said Monica Brooks, manager of diversity and inclusion for PPL Electric Utilities. “I thank my mother for instilling these values in me — it gives me courage and inspires me to speak up for what is right and be an advocate for others. This is really what Dr. King’s legacy means. It impacts us all, even today.”

Monday, January 18, is the first time that Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed as a PPL company holiday for salaried employees. On this day, or the days following, we urge you to set aside some time to listen to Ms. Thelma Brooks’ story and reflect on what it means to you. Consider how you may use these lessons to be a champion for change going forward.