Late last summer, for the first time in 21 years, former Macon Mayor Ronnie Thompson wasn’t working. He took two and a half months off to recover from a minor stroke.
Looking strong — and a touch like country singer George Jones — Thompson is back at work again at both a funeral home and at River Edge Behavioral Health Center.
“I sleep some here,” he said this week at Crest Lawn Funeral Home, where he logs about 70 hours a week. Chuckling, he added, “And I rest up on the weekends.”
His job has allowed him to pursue the education he didn’t have during his political life.
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“When I came out of the mayor’s office, I only had a high school degree,” said Thompson, who is known by many as “Machine Gun Ronnie” for being involved in a shootout in the city’s industrial area.
The overnight shift at Crest Lawn gave him the time to earn an associate and bachelor’s degree. Now, the 75-year-old who was mayor from 1967-1975 is working on a master’s degree in addiction studies.
During the day, Thompson works at River Edge as a community support services employee. There he supervises up to 35 mentally ill people, teaching self-management skills and helping them better interact with the community. It’s work he’s been drawn to since he befriended a mentally retarded man nicknamed “Bullfrog.”
Years before becoming mayor, Thompson was forced into action as an ambassador for Macon. A group of white Macon residents put Bullfrog, a black man, on a bus to Detroit, with a note for Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a white political liberal. It said Bullfrog was a “typical black” who should join the Motor City’s 60,000 unemployed.
“They called it a ‘one-way freedom ride,’” Thompson said.
He contacted Cavanagh to say the stunt didn’t reflect how all of Macon thought and bought a ticket home for Bullfrog.
This image of Thompson runs contrary to the firebrand racist his name sometimes conjures.
“The people who put me in the same category as George Wallace don’t know me,” he said, referring to the Alabama governor known for his “segregation forever” speech. “I got my reputation because I didn’t want people to burn the city down.”
In May 1970, race riots erupted in Augusta, Thompson’s birthplace. According to news reports, six people died, all of them black men shot by police. With that in mind, Thompson issued his now infamous “shoot to kill” orders.
“The fair thing was to tell people what the grave consequences would be if they tried to burn the city down,” he said. “They didn’t warn anyone in Augusta, and I saw what happened there.”
He admits growing up a segregationist but said he was 11 years old when that ended. At a service station in Sparta, he saw a young black boy crying because he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom.
“I got back in the car and told my family how wrong that was,” he said. When they arrived at their family function, he repeated his rant to aunts and uncles who said nothing in response.
“I can imagine what they were thinking of me,” he said.
During Thompson’s run for mayor, singer Otis Redding and promoter Phil Walden gave him an office in their Redwal Music Building on Cotton Avenue. Little more than a month after Thompson became mayor, Redding died in a plane crash. Thompson promptly dedicated the Otis Redding Bridge in his honor.
He also became friends with James Brown, whom he sometimes accompanied to other cities to facilitate police escorts for the star. Later on, Thompson recorded an album, “Here I Am,” on Starday Records. It has become a rare collectible for vinyl fanatics because of its unique “A James Brown Production” logo.
Macon, Thompson said, always has been a music town, listing bygone locals such as Uncle Ned and the Hayloft Jamboree, the Smile-a-While Gospel Quartet and Peanut Faircloth. With special fondness, he recalls the way high school bands would parade down Cherry Street on football Friday nights.
“And one of the biggest attractions always was Ballard-Hudson,” he said of Macon’s historic all-black school.
Reflecting on the city’s many nooks and crannies and the pockets of history hidden in plain sight, he pondered the connection residents have to Macon these days.
“People don’t take the time to appreciate the richness of their community,” he said.
To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.