Local looks to change Black Belt

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 10, 2004

Thomas E. “Tommy” Towns Jr. is not your usual volunteer. While most volunteers enlist in particular projects which may vary over time, Towns has chosen to commit his whole life to the reformation not only of Selma and Dallas County but of the Black Belt and beyond.

Indeed, one might call Tommy Towns a revolutionary, but, again, not the usual kind.

A 23-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who fought in Vietnam and served in a number of other countries as well, he now sees himself as a man of peace. He retired from the military in 1989.

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The principal vehicle for Towns’ varied activities aimed at community development and redevelopment is the Four Rivers Global Leadership Association whose purpose is to recruit, train and deploy community developers such as Towns first in Selma and Dallas County and then communities beyond. A while back he was active in traditional volunteer activities as his children were growing up, such as Southside Booster Club and PTO activities of various kinds. He has done yard work and run concession stands for schools which his children have attended.

Towns is married to Karen Towns and they have a son Anthony who will graduate from Southside High School this year and a daughter who is a junior at Indiana University.

The approach of Four Rivers Global Leadership Association is to make contacts in communities far and wide, to identify people who are unhappy with the way things are and who are willing through training and hard work to support long-term efforts to enable people to help themselves.

There are no certain outcomes for this kind of effort but Towns willingly puts shoulder to the plow, fully believing that there will be long-term results, even if not in his lifetime.

What motivates a man like Towns? In his own words, “I am so blessed. I give thanks every day that I’m alive and that I have my health – that’s a double blessing. I volunteer because I am so thankful to be so blessed. I have to give my life in response.

“I was born in New York. My father sent me and my brother and my mother to Selma to live with our grandmother in 1964-65 during the height of the civil rights movement in Selma, while he continued to work to support the family. I graduated from R.P. Hudson High School in 1965. I marched from Selma to Montgomery. I was involved in a lot of other things. Actually, I was involved in the ‘Bloody Sunday’ march but was in the rear so I did not get to go forward as others were running back to the Selma side of the bridge.”

He continued, “I went into the military for 23 years and when I finally returned in 1998, the last of three times in Selma, I was astounded at how little real progress had been made. The color of the faces of political leaders had changed but beyond that little else had changed. People of color and poor people were still being discriminated against and had not made much, if any, progress since the 1960s. The only change was that the streets were paved in some parts of town where they had not been before. Selma has no business being as far behind as it is. We never did finish crossing the bridge.

“I’ve been all around the world. There is no one in the world that I’ve met who doesn’t know about Selma and yet, here in Selma, we’re way behind many of the other cities in the South of comparable size who were where we were back then. They have moved on. We have not.”

For some, such pessimism would lead to withdrawal from society or violent protests against it. Towns says, “I remember the violence in the cities in the 1960s – from coast to coast. I think we could be on the verge of seeing such outbreaks again. When people feel that they are oppressed, cut out, left out, left behind, there’s a point beyond which they’re not going to take it any more.”

But Towns is not of that stripe. Rather he is a man who prays for and works for change – peaceful change – who is a lifelong admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his philosophy of nonviolence, a man of patience and persistence who is willing to spend the rest of his life working with others to achieve a better society for all – black and white. For Towns it’s not about race, it’s about a better life for all.

“Look,” he said, “we (African-Americans) need to understand responsibility. We’re not slaves anymore. We live in a great and beautiful country. We need to be responsible citizens. We need to work, to vote, to be a full part of the communities in which we live. That’s the challenge of this generation – now that we have received from those who went before the hard-won right to vote.”