“I dreamed a dream of freedom today . . .” noted civil rights attorney Thomas N. Todd said Wednesday night, his robust voice floating to the rafters, as he spoke about the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
Todd, 76, was the keynote speaker at a Chicago State University ceremony celebrating his donation of an extensive collection of documents and memorabilia to the school that spans his 50 years as a civil rights trailblazer.
“I accept this recognition not for what I’ve done in the past, but what I must do in the future,” said Todd, known in the civil rights movement as “TNT” for his famed oratory skills, after a host of luminaries heaped praise from a podium.
As one of the first black assistant U.S. attorneys hired in Chicago in 1967, Todd established the nation’s first Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1969.
He co-founded Operation PUSH in 1971 and came up with its name — People United to Serve Humanity. He served as its first vice president under the Rev. Jesse Jackson and as acting president from 1983-1984, when Jackson ran for the U.S. presidency. Old-timers will remember well his powerful voice that weekly railed against racial injustice on PUSH’s popular Saturday morning radio show.
Speaking to a full house of CSU staff, students and dignitaries who gathered to celebrate the acquisition, Todd said the fight for racial equality is not yet won.
“I don’t care what technology you use, what app you have. You still can’t download freedom,” he said to applause, his voice rising and falling, like a preacher.
Born Sept. 24, 1938 in Demopolis, Ala., Todd graduated from high school at age 15. He obtained his bachelor’s in political science from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., in 1959, graduated magna cum laude from its law school in 1963, and entered the U.S. Army to serve as a Judge Advocate General’s Corp officer from 1964-1967.
He recalled as a law student being asked by other students to participate in civil rights demonstrations in Baton Rouge during the time of the freedom riots.
“I had to tell them ‘No. You have enough black people to demonstrate, but you don’t have enough black lawyers,’ ” he said in a Sun-Times interview. “As a result, I made an agreement with myself that part of my life, for the rest of my life, would be spent giving back to the civil rights movement.”
Todd made history in 1968 by filing the first criminal case against a Chicago Police officer for deprivation of an individual’s civil rights, and that same year, he helped establish the Afro-American Patrolman’s League. The historic 1968 case, United States vs. Gorman, ended in a hung jury in 1971.
“Tom Todd is a living Paul Robeson,” said CSU President Wayne Watson, exuberant at adding this collection to that of the late Judge Eugene Pincham, housed at the South Side school. “Tom Todd is the generation that we read about, still living and walking amongst us. He laid the foundation for me to stand where I am today.”
Todd was the first full-time black professor hired at Northwestern University’s School of Law, where he taught from 1970-1974. He also served as president of the Chicago Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1971.
He was the legal adviser behind the historic campaigns of key black Chicago politicians, from U.S. Rep Ralph Metcalfe to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. He counts those successes among major life achievements.
The 127-artifact collection, including legal papers and speeches, military and political memorabilia, publications, correspondence, audio and video recordings, is being processed and expected to be accessible for research in spring 2015.
“Thomas Todd, if he’s not known for anything else, is a freedom fighter,” said fellow civil rights attorney Lewis Myers.
Married for 47 years to wife Janis, with two daughters, Todd shrugged off the accolades.
“I believe that you should live your life with nouns — courage, commitment, compassion and conviction — but let your living be defined by verbs — give, serve and help,” he said humbly.