Detroit Democratic Activist’s Death From COVID-19 Leaves A ‘Big Void’

Thomas A. Wilson Jr., 73, was a jack-of-all-trades who planned to help Joe Biden in November.
Thomas A. Wilson Jr. dedicated his life to electing Democrats, championing Detroit and advancing education.
Thomas A. Wilson Jr. dedicated his life to electing Democrats, championing Detroit and advancing education.

Soon after the state of Michigan created the Education Achievement Authority in 2012, it prompted criticism from Detroiters for stripping city parents of control over their kids’ schools and subjecting low-income Black residents to experimental education methods.

Thomas A. Wilson Jr., a retired physical education teacher, led the charge, writing letters to the editor, phoning in to his favorite radio talk shows and persistently lobbying state lawmakers about it. Through it all, he stayed positive, flashing a pearly white smile underneath his signature mustache, recalled former Michigan state Sen. Bertram Johnson, who was often on the receiving end of Wilson’s articulate charm offensives.

“Tom didn’t beat you up,” Johnson said. “He just did it with such poise and grace.”

“I had this phrase, ‘You can improve me with information,’” he added. “And that’s what Tom would do.”

Johnson credits the activism of Wilson and others like him for pushing the Michigan Legislature to shutter the EAA a few years later.

Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, planned to bring that same rigor and passion to the effort to help former Vice President Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump in Michigan, a key battleground state in the presidential election.

Asked in March whether Biden could turn out the voters who stayed home when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, Wilson told HuffPost, “Yeah, and I’m going to help him.”

He would never get the chance. In mid-April, Wilson got sick from the novel coronavirus. Wilson did not drink or smoke, and he swam 50 laps at a local pool three times a week. He did not take any medication aside from his daily vitamins.

Still, the disease worked its way through his body with brutal efficiency. Eileen, his wife of 55 years, summoned an ambulance when he began to have trouble breathing. Wilson died on April 22, eight days after being admitted to the hospital. As with the more than 1,200 other Detroiters who have fallen to COVID-19, Wilson spent his last days on Earth all alone. Eileen hadn’t been able to speak to him since he left their home in northwest Detroit.

“It was devastating,” Eileen said. “I feel very disgusted by it because I just feel he shouldn’t have had to go out like that.”

In addition to Eileen, Wilson leaves behind his mother Ruth; his two kids, Thomas and Shaughn; his three grandchildren, Thomas, Tariq and Taiquon; and a vast community of neighbors and fellow activists who knew him on a first-name basis.

Local Democratic officials admit that it will be a challenge to replace his organizing power ahead of the general election in November.

“It’s a big void,” said Rick Blocker, chairman of the Democratic Party in Michigan’s 14th Congressional District, in which Wilson served as sergeant-at-arms. “He never asked for the spotlight. He just always wanted to be a soldier.”

Johnson said there is “no deeper, no smarter, no more conscientious individual in the city of Detroit. Losing him, you might as well tell me the sun is not going to come out for a while.”

I met Wilson on March 9, while he was waiting in line to enter an election eve rally for Joe Biden at Detroit’s Renaissance High School. Biden’s massive primary victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) the following day all but clinched the Democratic presidential nomination for him.

At the time, I was completing a freelance assignment for Al Jazeera English’s documentary series, “Faultlines.” Our episode on the conflict within the Democratic Party came out Wednesday. 

Watch the full, 25-minute documentary here.

Wilson, who introduced himself wryly as the “one, the only, the inimitable Thomas A. Wilson Jr.,” ended up giving us one of the more colorful embodiments of skepticism toward Sanders’ progressive agenda.

“I admire the man for what he’s trying to do, but Bernie, he talks a lot of ‘eargasm,’” Wilson said. “It sounds good to the ear, but when the bottom line comes down, when the rubber hits the road, there’s no free lunch.”

A true pillar of his community, Wilson’s list of responsibilities, political leadership roles and hobbies would put even the most well-rounded renaissance man to shame. 

“He did it all ― literally,” said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D). “He was larger than life as an activist. He gave of his time and his life in advocating what was best for our city.”

In addition to his duties as the 14th District party’s sergeant-at-arms, Wilson was a board member of the Black caucus of the Wayne County Democratic Party, a precinct delegate for the state Democratic Party, an active member of Detroit’s teachers union, a leading education advocate, a frequent letter writer to the Detroit Free Press and a longstanding participant in the city’s elite political listserve known simply as the email group, or EMG.

Previously, Wilson was also a vice president of his neighborhood block association and a neighborhood city hall manager under then-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. When he wasn’t raising his grandchildren in his home with his wife, Eileen, or visiting his aging mother, he was busy working the grill to hand out hamburgers and hotdogs to city cops during police appreciation week and planting marigolds, geraniums and impatiens as part of a neighborhood beautification program. The only day that did not involve a community or political meeting of any kind, his wife recalled, was Sunday, when he could be found serving as an usher at St. Scholastica Catholic Church.

After his death, condolences poured in from the highest echelons of Michigan’s Democratic power structure. Eileen, an occupational therapist, received sympathy phone calls from Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). 

In the absence of the kind of celebratory funeral he would have received under ordinary circumstances, neighbors conducted a 20-car “drive-by” funeral procession outside his home.

“I’m not saying he broke the mold, but they’ll have to go some to beat him,” Eileen said. “They don’t make people like that anymore.”

Stephen Henderson, host of Detroit Public Radio’s “Detroit Today,” delivered a tearful on-air homage to Wilson, who he identified as the show’s most frequent caller. He would call every day, often lighting up the phones before the show had even begun.

Henderson told HuffPost that Wilson’s commentary over the years was characterized by relentless optimism and a welcoming attitude toward outsiders that was rare in a city scarred by economic, racial and social trauma.

He understood that there were people who were doing things that were not great for us, but his idea was that those were misunderstandings and that we could overcome them and find ways to work together. Stephen Henderson, host, "Detroit Today," Detroit Public Radio

“He understood that there were people who were doing things that were not great for us, but his idea was that those were misunderstandings and that we could overcome them and find ways to work together,” Henderson said.

The beneficiaries of Wilson’s compassionate approach to politics ranged from new Detroit residents gentrifying the city to Michiganders who had opted to elect President Donald Trump in 2016.

“I remember him saying, ‘These are people who are hurting,’” Henderson said. “They were attracted to somebody who he didn’t like, but he understood where they were coming from.”

Wilson was also not afraid to champion controversial causes, such as the legalization of casino gambling in Detroit in the late 1990s. 

More religious residents would lambaste him on the radio for trying to transform Detroit into a “sin city,” but he would stand his ground, according to Eileen. He stuck to his belief in the economic benefits, noting that gamblers were just going across the border to Windsor, Ontario, depriving the city of critical revenue.

“He would just say, ’I hear that big sucking sound from Windsor that’s taking all the money away from Detroit,” Eileen said, laughing as she remembered it. “He had some real cojones.”

Wilson was born in Landgraff, West Virginia, the oldest of four children. His family moved to Detroit when he was a boy so his father could take a job at a Chrysler plant.

Thanks to scholarship funding, Wilson became the first person in his family to obtain a college degree, graduating from Wayne State University in 1971. He was a fullback on his college football team. In our interview with him in March, Wilson called himself a “BMOC ― big man on campus.” 

Wilson had varied tastes ― relishing country music as well as jazz, blues and some rock ‘n’ roll.

Likewise, he mixed his solemn political pronouncements with a generous helping of humor. 

At the end of my interview with Wilson, he shook my hand, saying, without batting an eye, “I’ll send you a bill.”

Wilson’s allegiance to the Democratic Party was rooted in his appreciation of the party’s support for Black civil rights and opportunities for social mobility of the kind he enjoyed, according to Eileen. 

Eileen recalled their work registering hundreds of voters during Barack Obama’s first presidential run in 2008. She credits her husband “indoctrinating” her about the value of political organizing. She plans to work hard ― in whatever way public health conditions permit ― to throw Trump out of office. 

“That would be part of his legacy,” she said. “We talked about it nightly and daily.”

Eileen blames Trump for Wilson’s death, pointing, in particular, to the president’s closure of a White House National Security Council office dedicated to fighting pandemics and similar threats. (The department, known as the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, was, in fact, merely restructured and placed under different supervision, though critics maintain that the lack of an office dedicated to those matters exclusively hampered the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.)

“He’s got a lot of blood on his hands for that,” Eileen said. 

Wilson’s younger sister, Sheryl West, a retired transportation worker in Tampa, Florida, also hopes to do her part to help Biden win Florida in Wilson’s memory.

“It’d be Tom going through me,” she said.

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