The year was 1951.
It was the early days of the civil rights movement and a time when segregation and racial inequality oppressed America’s population. Segregated neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals were required by law. Though the constitution read all races should be “separate but equal” many still experienced discrimination when they tried to vote, buy a house, or get an education. In a time that could have easily been clouded with fear, Letha Thompson stood firm in her faith and chose to remain optimistic.
Letha was born and raised in Jacksonville, Texas. She met Oscar “Elmer” Thompson after being set up on a blind date by her cousin and the couple married in 1947. The Thompsons made their way across Texas to settle into the small town of Artesia, New Mexico in 1951. Letha, a young twenty-something worked as a housekeeper to help support their growing family but remained driven and inspired to reach for higher ambitions.
“There weren’t many positions or career opportunities for African Americans,” she explained. Letha was determined to break this pattern. She focused on excellence in education and attained the college credits necessary to become an associate of the public school system. Over her career she taught at nearly every elementary school in Artesia.
As a mother, Letha refused to let fear determine her family’s quality of life. Her daughter, Linger Stearns explained, “my mother has strong faith and determination, high virtues, and moral excellence and that’s what she taught us. She always let us know that we’re good enough… that we shouldn’t try to fit in because we were born to stand out.” While the family can recall many times that they felt frustrated and discouraged by the negativity they faced as African Americans in a predominantly white community, they somehow became acquainted with every race.
“We had to learn to love and live with each other,” Letha explained. An ethos of warmth, strength, and positivity led the family of seven to thrive in the times of prejudice, when the odds were against them.
I think with a little hard work and a little effort you can almost climb mountains.
During our conversation, Letha explained how she was prompted to create change, “I had the community at heart. I thought, ‘Artesia can do better than this.’ There was a divine vision that came to me, it was about Dr. King. I kind of felt like He was telling me something and now I know. I had an urging to do something to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the black community.” In an effort to fulfill this urge, she gathered a group of strong and dedicated community members (of all races) to create the Keeping the Dream Alive Organization. This team went door to door and encouraged the community to stand in solidarity with their neighbors regardless of their differences. Letha established herself as an advocate for racial equality and a leading voice for black Americans in her community.
As the founding member and visionary leader, Letha coordinated a community wide celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with guest speakers, special music, and student plays that has become an annual observance and tradition in our community. The organization formed a scholarship fund for graduating seniors at Artesia High School and actively shares Dr. King’s message of non-violent conflict resolution to encourage peaceful solutions and promote awareness and appreciation for his legacy and philosophies. Letha’s daughter, Linger serves as the current president of the organization.
After years of investing into the community, the organization’s vision came to fruition in 2009 when the City of Artesia announced that in partnership with the Keeping the Dream Alive Organization, a new multi-use facility would be built on north 13th Street – The Martin Luther King Recreation Complex. This new facility would furnish the community of Artesia with a place to picnic, a skate park, and a splash pad along with additional facilities. Letha proudly presented the community with a dedication speech at the park’s grand opening.
With Letha’s leadHERship she encouraged herself and empowered others to create change.
“I think with a little hard work and a little effort you can almost climb mountains. And that was a part of my life goal and my dream,” she explained. Letha’s life story is a true testament of choosing faith over fear; her actions inspired compassion and unity and advocacy in our community. Her legacy will live on through the generations who will benefit from her bravery and generosity.
Letha asked me to extend her gratitude to the Artesia City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Artesia Community Center, KSVP radio, and the Artesia Daily Press who have significantly supported the Keeping the Dream Alive Organization along with the members and gracious donors.
Article originally published in Focus on Artesia 2020 Spring edition.