The University Record, January 23, 1996

Believe in yourself, not labels, Fleming says

By Julie A. Peterson
News and Information Services 

As a young man in his 20s, Thomas Fleming found himself in the U.S. Army, unable to read or write---but determined that he would learn. He picked up the government-issued New Testament and, with the assistance of others, began a journey that would lead him to an advanced degree and the 1992 National Teacher of the Year award.

The hope that each life can be made better---and the individual determination necessary to translate hope into reality---was central to Martin Luther King Jr.'s message, noted both Fleming and Executive Vice President Farris Womack, who introduced the Eighth Annual Business and Finance MLK Unity Convocation. Fleming was keynote speaker for the Jan. 15 convocation, sponsored by the Business and Finance Diversity Committee, which also included a performance by the Business and Finance Choir.

King's notion of individual responsibility, along with the refusal to have a victim's mentality, was a key part of his teachings, said Womack. "He did a lot to strengthen the resolve of Americans that they are responsible for themselves and their own future."

Womack challenged the audience to answer three questions: 1) What does empowerment mean to me? 2) When did I first feel empowered, and what happened to make me feel that way? and 3) What am I doing every day to help others feel the same "joy of empowerment"?

Fleming's life experiences embody both taking responsibility for one's own destiny as well as sharing that sense of self-confidence and empowerment with others. A high school dropout at age 16, he joined the Michigan National Guard, served in the Army for six years and then, upon his return, attended night school in order to earn a G.E.D. He graduated from Detroit Bible College with a Bachelor of Religious Education degree, earned a minister's license, and graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1968 with a Master of Arts degree and teaching certification in Special Education.

While working with troubled adolescents at a state hospital, Fleming became interested in their special needs. For more than 20 years he worked with hundreds of delinquent and neglected youth including teaching at the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School and the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center. In 1991 he was named Michigan Teacher of the Year and in 1992 received the national honor.

Fleming, now special assistant to the provost at EMU, met King in the early 1960s when he made his annual visit to preach at the Central Michigan Church in Detroit. When he went to shake King's hand, "the jolt of that man's charisma ran up through my hand and into my body," said Fleming.

King's life became an inspiration for Fleming not only through his personal contact, but also through the many writings by and about the civil rights leader.

"If you accept the labels put on you, then not even Heaven can help you. You must do something for yourself and believe in yourself," Fleming said. "Dr. King taught me the reality of having power---self-power."

But, he added, "when you help somebody else, you can feel how it empowers you. It is only as we help one another in the human spirit" that we can address the challenges facing society, he said.