January 26, 2021
New Orleans When ACORN began in Little Rock, the next city where we organized was Pine Bluff in 1971, a river and mill town about 50 miles down the Arkansas River. The first organizer there was Herman Davenport, who I had poached from the Pulaski County Legal Aid office when we briefly officed there in 1970. I had gotten him a slot with the FRAC, the Food Research and Action Council, which covered his work. There was a list of others, including Madeline Talbott, who worked for ACORN in a number of offices before building a spectacular operation in Chicago, and now the even longer serving Neil Sealey, who has moved seamlessly from being the Pine Bluff organizer to the head organizer of Arkansas ACORN to the executive director of ACO, Arkansas Community Organizations.
The members and leaders were the through lines for the organization for the last fifty years. Maxine Nelson was at the point of the leadership there from local group to elected member of the school board to national secretary of the ACORN board and head of the ACORN Political Action Committee. One of the rocks on which the entire operation was built who was a member from the 70s was Susie Thomas. When young guns talk about people being “present” and “engaged,” they would be unable to imagine how Ms. Thomas lived those words to the fullest. She was at every local group meeting. She was at every action, as long as someone picked her up. She was at board meetings in Pine Bluff and Little Rock for the Arkansas organization, and she was at the biannual national ACORN Conventions time after time. She was as recognizable in Pine Bluff as the ACORN flag, maybe more so.
Susie Thomas passed away a couple of days ago at 107. Zach Polett, a longtime ACORN veteran, shared with me memories of visiting with Susie a year ago. She was still clear as a bell and reminiscing about ACORN meetings and actions. It seems like only yesterday, but it must have been almost five years ago when I last sat with Susie in her home in Pine Bluff. Sam Pollard, the photographer and filmmaker, famed for his work with Spike Lee and in the news now for a documentary on Martin Luther King, Jr., was there with a crew working on a documentary being done by Reuben Atlas, who shared a clip of their interview with Susie. Her boundless spirit and infectious laughter and liveliness jumps out of every frame.
I remember the conversation well. She talked about local actions and how much she missed ACORN conventions. Towards the end of our conversation, she drew me closer, looked me in the eye, and said, “When are we going get ACORN back again?” I parried her question, saying that ACO was still right there in Arkansas as the successor organization. She wasn’t having any of it. She shook her head and said, “It’s not the same, Wade, I want ACORN again!”
Susie Thomas was a rock and an inspiration. When you made her a promise, you do everything you can to live up to it.