Maggie Thompson, Presente!
By Michael Kaufman
Maggie Thompson lived in the “other” Orange, the one in New Jersey, but the lessons of her life extend far beyond the boundaries of a single city or county. Maggie, who died last week at age 92, spent most of her life trying to make the world a better place. Along the way she inspired family members, friends and others she met to do the same.
“From very early on, Maggie Thompson was deep in the struggle for equality, taking on women’s rights and civil rights and speaking up for an emerging labor movement,” wrote Barry Carter, who interviewed Maggie in November at Daughters of Israel, a senior care facility in West Orange, NJ, where she spent the last months of her life. “The challenges of an interracial marriage made it even tougher, living in Orange where she was involved in the campaign to desegregate the Orange school system. She was white; her second husband, the late Ernest Thompson, was black and a well-known union organizer.”
Carter’s interview with Thompson, published in the The Star-Ledger of Newark, followed publication of her autobiography, From One to Ninety-one: A Life, which she began at age 90 and finished in nine months. Carter observed a writing class conducted by Thompson to encourage fellow residents of the facility to write their stories: “Thompson, 91, is every bit the instructor as she lectures from her wheelchair in the cafeteria,” he wrote. “Six students in the class inched their way around the table, some in wheelchairs like hers, others riding motorized scooters.” Guided by Thompson, each penned a short story based on their life experience.
The reporter could not help but notice that Thompson had to pause frequently “to catch her breath from an oxygen tube attached to a green tank on the back of her wheelchair. She inhales for enough energy to continue, but it doesn’t slow the cancer gradually taking her strength.” Between breaths she told the reporter about her life with Ernest Thompson, the first African-American organizer for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) and director of organization for the National Negro Labor Council. “Together, they helped Benjamin Jones become the first African-American elected to the all-white municipal government in Orange.
“They weathered the McCarthy years, a period of government scrutiny that she describes as hateful and isolating. The FBI watched their home, she says, and questioned their neighbors. It didn’t help that they were dear friends of Paul Robeson, a concert singer, actor, athlete and scholar who spoke out for equality of minorities and workers’ rights throughout the world. In their backyard on Olcott Street, the couple hosted a barbecue for Robeson in 1956, when no one would allow him to perform because of his political activism.”
Not long after the interview, Maggie grew too weak to continue teaching the class, but she continued to post her thoughts on her blog site, MaggieINK (maggieink.blogspot.com) until Dec. 21. Her final post was the poem “Desiderata,” written by Max Ehrmann in 1927, which she introduced with these words: “Take it down, trust it to your memory, put it among your ‘Things To Be Remembered,’ and look at it when your spirits are low. It’s guaranteed to make you feel strong again. Trust me.”
The last verse reads:
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy
At the end of the poem Maggie wrote her final message to her readers in large type: “Do all the good you can.”
Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.