Stargazer: Dr. June Manning Thomas

Dr. June Thomas with her husband, Dr. Richard Thomas

How would you feel if you went to a restaurant and the server refused to take your order? Or if you were turned away from a movie theater because of the color of your skin? These are two examples of racism that Dr. June Manning Thomas lived with growing up in a small town in South Carolina, U.S. Going to big cities had a “magical appeal,” because they gave her more freedom from segregation.

June focused her energy on school and won national academic awards in high school and college. She earned a doctorate degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Michigan. As a professor, she trains students to help cities solve many kinds of problems, including job loss, poverty, and discrimination.


Q: What was your most challenging experience as a kid?

A:  Integration of the local white high school . . . when I was 14 . . . I was aware of the civil rights movement, because our hometown was a hotbed of marches and protests . . . I thought that you would just go to school, and everybody would be friendly, because . . . they would be your classmates . . . That's not what happened . . . It was pretty bad from beginning to end . . . It was not just bullying. We were essentially ostracized.


June, age 11, with her parents and sister, Michelle, in South Carolina in 1961.


Q: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited your hometown during the civil rights movement. What impact did that have on you and your community?

A: He could move audiences very easily . . . I just remember the feeling of excitement and optimism, because it was such a righteous movement, and we all felt that God was on our side and that right was on our side, and that eventually, the nonviolent . . . civil rights movement . . . would triumph. And so it was just an enormous feeling of happiness.


Q: How did your family encourage you in your career choice?

A: [My parents] were both college professors . . . I was raised helping my mom grade papers . . . I must have been 10 [or] 12 years old, so I was sort of trained in it . . . Our whole world was the faculty and staff of this black college. 


In high school, June was a U.S. Presidential Scholar and met President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Q: Given the work that you do, which deals with so many issues of social and racial injustice, how do you maintain a sense of hope?

A:  I’m a Bahá’í . . . I'm disturbed by what I find, but it doesn't define my vision or my view of what I’m looking at. So I understand that all of this . . . can be traced back to a lack of understanding of human destiny and to disunity . . . You have to build up the community that has a chance of helping to save the world.



Q: What is urban planning and what inspired you to get into it?

A:  We train people that work on very practical ways of improving cities and suburbs . . . Growing up in the small-town South, cities were always special places to me where we could find relative freedom . . . Going to Miami meant being able to go to the same movie theaters as everyone else . . . being able to get a hamburger at a Burger King . . . And then when I was in college . . . [I took] a course in urban sociology . . . I just really loved the combination of the ability to affect human places, but to do it from a perspective of social justice. 


Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in cities today, and what is needed to solve them?

A:  Most of my work . . . has been on Detroit. And Detroit is sort of symptomatic of U.S. cities . . . We've continued to spread out and out and out, and [we] are warming the planet to an alarming degree, in large part because of automobiles . . . There are two main problems. One is how do we stop people from this continual [urban] sprawl that is a big environmental damage . . . And the other  . . . is what happens to the people left behind in central cities, and how do we make their lives livable when the city itself has pretty much emptied out, which means there is no money for basic services . . .


After working for months on a project about increasing jobs, June’s students presented their results in a Detroit factory in 2014. 


Q: How would you define economic justice?

A:  I think economic justice means that everyone should have the ability to receive the kind of education and training that would allow them to earn a livelihood.


Q: What are some of the most important life skills you think kids need in today's world? 

A:  To know why we are on Earth, what the purpose of our life is—and that if [you] have that—that will protect . . . against materialism and a lot of different temptations . . . How do you set goals and reach them?  How do you overcome stress?  How do you survive bullying? . . . Part of the purpose of knowing the purpose of your life is knowing how to serve. So how do you decide to serve humanity?


Q: If you had one wish for Brilliant Star readers, what would it be?

A:  Happiness and self-confidence . . . You know, the only way to have that kind of happiness and self-confidence is just to immerse yourself in creating yourself as the best person you can be, which means human virtues . . . It means truthfulness and loving everyone and not giving in to hate and just being the best person you can be.

Discover341 Race Unity131 Racism58 Elimination of Prejudice65 Segregation5 Civil Rights3 Family83 Hope31 Careers140 Bahá’í Faith339 Justice76 Cities4 Goals171 Service183 Life Skills96 Stargazers52