Tireless soldier fought on the battlefield, against discrimination


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Retired Col. Nathan Thomas led soldiers at wars overseas and fought for civil rights at home

Senior Life photo

He served three tours in Vietnam … and was clubbed by police on horseback.

Retired Army Col. Nathan Thomas, the first African-American lieutenant colonel in the Minnesota National Guard, led Special Forces in Vietnam, in the invasion of Panama and in Desert Storm, but his greatest combat experience took place on the streets of Birmingham and Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement.

Along with 599 other marchers, Thomas was beaten by police as the whole country watched during Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. Within a week of the incident, President Lyndon Johnson introduced a comprehensive voting rights bill to Congress that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opening up the polls to African Americans throughout the South for the first time since the end of the Reconstruction.

Thomas also attended the historic March on Washington in 1963 and was interviewed by PBS for a documentary on the 50th anniversary of the event.

Being thrown in jail set the stage for Thomas’ discipline in military as well as civilian life, and he has excelled at both. Thomas’ military kudos include the Legion of Merit, Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, Army Commendation with Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Achievement Medal and the Vietnam Service Medal, among many others. He was elected into the Court of Honor at Camp Ripley, Minnesota for outstanding heroism, courage and devotion to country.

He also has received significant recognition in civilian life, including the NAACP Roy Wilkins Renown Service Award, the Pyramid of Excellence Award and Kare 11 (Eleven Who Care) Community Award. President George W. Bush presented Thomas with a Daily Points of Light Award.

In 1972, Thomas moved to Minnesota to work at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul. After serving in the active duty Air Force and Army for 15 years, he rejoined the military through the Minnesota Army National Guard under a degree program for officers to upgrade their careers.

He later was hired by 3M Corporation as an audiovisual manager in photography, winning several awards. He began volunteering by speaking at schools during Black History Month. For 10 years, he took two weeks off from work to teach teens in Selma how to pass college exams.

When he moved to Brevard County after 39 years of service in the military, Thomas continued leading by example, as Martin Luther King Jr. did. At Stand Down events, Thomas provides food, clothing and assistance with transportation for homeless veterans. He helped create Welcome Home Vets, which assists veterans of all conflicts.

At last count, he has mentored approximately 2,000 JROTC students in high school.

With Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Cocoa, Thomas has helped to distribute more than 72 tons of food to struggling individuals and families in Central Brevard. He also traveled to Haiti to deliver supplies and build an orphanage for 180 children there.

A soldier’s soldier, an advocate for human rights and an exemplary volunteer, Col. Nathan Thomas has always walked the walk for his fellow human beings since that day at Selma.