By Helene T. Carter
As we bear witness to the Presidential Inauguration, we also take note of our elected officials who were chosen to serve and protect the people’s interests on local and state levels. The New Year ushered in a crop of elected officials who share a common bond -- they are graduates of Paine College who serve in political offices throughout Georgia and the nation.
Attorney Michael L. Thurmond, a 1975 Paine alumnus, earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and completed the Political Executives program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. On January 13, 2017, he took an oath to restore trust, transparency and vowed to eliminate corruption as the newly elected Chief Executive Officer of DeKalb County, Georgia.
“I owe my success to Paine College,” said Thurmond when asked how he arrived at such a highly-elected state office in a predominantly red state. Thurmond, a Democrat, won a convincing victory against his Republican opponent. This servant leader is no stranger to Georgia politics and its people. As a former DeKalb County Schools Superintendent, he upgraded the district’s accreditation status, eliminated a multi-million dollar deficit and improved student academic performance and graduation rates. The newly elected CEO will be in charge of more than 6,000 government employees and a $1.38 billion annual budget. Thurmond, also known as The Fixer and the Master Builder of Relationships, has the ability to connect people and forge alliances deemed non-existent.
Reflecting on his Paine College experience, he said, “My professors taught me that there is more that unites us than divides us. At Paine, everybody knew each other. Paine was a small tight-knit community. It was typical for caring staff and alumni to guide and mentor students. They went beyond the call of duty to ensure that students excelled. Paine College continues to offer a big education in a small and caring environment.
As a son of a Clarke County, Georgia sharecropper, I learned invaluable lessons at Paine that I have carried with me throughout my life’s work. I am a better servant leader because of my Paine College experience.” Thurmond is a staunch advocate for his Alma Mater. He even took a break from the 2016 campaign trail to steer the College through a rough patch. The Paine College Board of Trustees unanimously voted to appoint Thurmond as Board Chair-Elect.
Attorney Barbara E. Bouknight, Chairman of the Board has recognized Thurmond as a dedicated Paine College alumnus who worked tirelessly to ensure that the institution survives and thrives. He is the face of the "Be 1 of 1000" Campaign that continues to garner donations for the College’s Annual Fund Campaign.
When asked what he wanted most for his Alma Mater, he replied, “I want people to support Paine College. I want alumni to donate their time and resources to an institution that has helped to shape numerous lives. I would like the Augusta Community and the state of Georgia to give gifts that will make a difference, the kinds of donations that will help to enhance the living and learning environment for students. Lend support to the College academic programs and increase offerings to students who otherwise would not have a chance to attend college. Investing in Paine College will always prove to be a sound investment and it’s one that will yield high dividends for the future.”
Thurmond has made an indelible mark in the Peach State. In 1986, he became the first African-American elected to the Georgia General Assembly from Clarke County since Reconstruction. During his tenure, he authored major legislation that has provided more than $250 million in tax relief to senior citizens and working families. Following his legislative service, Thurmond was called upon to lead the state Division of Family and Children's Services and direct Georgia's historic transition from welfare to work. He created the innovative Work First program, which helped over 90,000 welfare-dependent Georgia families move from dependence into the workforce.
In 1997, Thurmond became a distinguished lecturer at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The following year in November, he was elected Georgia Labor Commissioner, becoming the first non-incumbent African American to be elected to statewide office in Georgia. During his three terms as commissioner, the Georgia Labor Department underwent a major transformation and his Georgia Works program earned national praise and bi-partisan support.
Thurmond’s latest book, Freedom: Georgia’s Antislavery Heritage, 1733-1865, was awarded the Georgia Historical Society’s Lilla Hawes Ward. In 2004, The Georgia Center for the Book listed Freedom as one of The 25 Books All Georgian’s Should Read. He serves on the University of Georgia Libraries Board of Visitors. He is married to Zola Fletcher Thurmond, and they have one daughter, Mikaya.