Charles Thomas, Jr. was born in Cincinnati, OH and moved to Detroit when he was 13. But it was his family roots in Selma, Alabama that gave him his life-long appreciation of the value of our vote.
His grandfather was sharecropper in Camden, Alabama. When he raised enough money to buy land in Selma, he moved his family of 13 children there where they resided in the mid 1960’s. By then, Charles’ father was a family man himself with 8 children. But Charles’ two aunts, who were only in their teens, became deeply involved in the civil rights movement and the 1965 marches in Selma. Growing up hearing the stories of that time from his aunts, Charles was inspired to carry on that family legacy and dedicated himself to “full participation in the franchise of democracy”
In 1977, Charles joined the military to help support his parents’ large household. When he returned to Detroit, he began studying sociology, psychology and theology. After marrying, he moved to Southfield while working a job with the U.S. Postal Service.
During that time, Charles began to deeply examine God’s purpose for us, which resulted in his book What is My Purpose? and the formation of People of Purpose Ministries. Charles came to understand that “when God shows you the what, the why, and the how, it is because He wants you to be a part of the who. If you believe in God, then I believe God would not find it acceptable that you would use your abilities to criticize. Be a part of the change. It is your turn now.”
After retiring from the postal service, Charles went to work full-time walking the talk. Over the years he has worked with ACLU People Power, Smart Justice, MOSES, Detroit NAACP, and helped with the campaign to elect Brenda Lawrence for mayor of Southfield Mi, among other activities in what Charles calls “the voting space”. It is his belief that “No matter what issue concerns you, all have one thing in common – they come into the voting space”
You can watch him speak at this voter engagement event: Charles Thomas Speaking Truth
Charles also launched his own initiative to encourage voter turnout: When You Vote, I Win. “We need laws and policies that serve and benefit us as a community. We can only get those laws and policies enacted if we all vote for candidates who will fight for our needs.” To build a base of people to do the work, Charles created an innovative ‘pledge to talk to voters’ program. So far, over 300 people have signed-up and have pledged to talk to over 7,000 people about voting!
Charles is also a very active member of the League of Women Voters Detroit (LWVD) through their speakers bureau. Charles partnered with LWVD and the Detroit Public Library to host an interview with his aunts about their experiences marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (now renamed after the late congressman and voting rights hero, John Lewis). You can watch it here: Three Marches, Two Sisters, One Bridge
In 2021, his work with LWVD led him to join VAAC, when Carrie Hatcher-Kay of the VAAC outreach committee contacted the LWVD to see if they wanted to join our coalition. At the time, Charles was speaking and educating Detroiters about the redistricting process and how to advocate for your “community of interest”. VAAC was also working on redistricting and introduced Charles to the issue of prison gerrymandering.
Below, Charles answers our Member Spotlight questions about his passions and motivations for involvement in VAAC:
What do you think people need to know about their voting rights that they don’t know?
They need to know that their rights are at risk right now. Entities and organizations are actively trying to make voting more difficult.
What do you see as the biggest problem facing society right now?
I believe that the overriding issue is the question of rights, there is this war that is going on in the culture in America about what rights individuals should have. Whether it is voting, reproductive, civil or other rights, the granting and taking away of rights has always been the issue. The reality is that we have divided American conflict into several different things but it is really about this thing – power and rights. Every major conflict in America has been about rights. Voting is power. It used to be limited to white property owners. They provided rights for themselves, but intentionally denied rights to others. America stated “all men were created equal” with rights, but they meant only white property owners.
People need to believe that change is always happening. Even though it hasn’t reached down to the deeper levels of community – some things have changed for the good. We have freedoms we didn’t have before, we don’t have to fight to vote like we did in the past. We get active because we see an injustice. If we are going to arrive at change, the ultimate tool to fix it is legislation. It is the tool that becomes enforceable. In the end you need somebody to put pen to paper and make a law. It costs you nothing to vote. MLK knew if he didn’t have legislation much of his labor would be in vain.
Registration is no longer a problem in Michigan with our current laws. So getting people to turn out is our most important job.
I always say, you can surrender to things as they exist or work to make change – only one or the other. The things we value, we protect. If someone told you that they were going to steal your personal property, you’d take all available means to protect it, but we do not place the same amount of value on our vote. Not voting is not a position of strength; it is a position of surrender. Giving up is not an option. Voting is the power to say what you want America to be. Like a paint brush, voting is our power to create the image of what we want our world to be.
Since joining VAAC, Charles has partnered with us on a number of outreach events including: