Thornton shares life stories at LWB

Larry Thornton talks about his book, "Why Not Win,” during Luncheon With Books at the Bryan Public Library.
Daily Times Leader

Larry Thornton is president and owner of Thornton Enterprises, Inc., the first African-American McDonald’s franchisee in Alabama who now has five restaurants.

He serves on the Board of Directors for Coca-Cola Bottling Company United, Inc and First Commercial Bank (Synovus).

"I was 12 in the ninth grade," Thornton said. "They were looking for black families who were willing to send their children to all-white schools. My parents agreed. I hated it. I just shut down. But I had a teacher I will never forget.”

Miss Nichols was out of the military, her reputation was of a teacher you did not want. Thornton did not want to be in her class.

"So of course, she was my teacher," Thornton said. "She made it her job to teach me and to reach me. She gave me the book 'Pilgrims Progress' to read. It captured my imagination how these characters were named Mercy, Kindness, and they acted according to their names. My grades began to improve."

Thornton and his father would do yard work for Nichols. It was different from any other white person's house they had worked at. She invited them into her home and served them lunch at her dining table.

"She talked to my father about my going to college," Thornton said. "No one had ever mentioned my name and college in the same sentence. She suggested I study art. I had no idea you could study art in college. She saw something in me that neither I or my parents could see. I owe her so much."

Thornton said he was an adult before he could see what white people experienced who were sensitive to the racial discrimination of the 1960s. Nichols was one of those special people.

"A failing student going nowhere," Thornton said. "Miss Nichols saw something different in me. She saw a young man with potential."

When Thornton talks about his book, he asks the question "What do you see, when you see me?"

Thornton said he does leadership sessions with Coca-Cola, and a memorable one was in Gainesville, Georgia.

"There were 35 team leaders," Thornton said. "A woman and one African-American. This place was about as backwoods as it gets. I stood up and talked about my story the way I have here, and one of the good ol' boys from the back stood up and started coming my way."

He wanted to tell Thornton about his teacher and said he was a knuckle-headed hillbilly that was no account and no good. He came across this woman who changed his life. He ate supper with her every Monday night. She'd open that school book and talked to him.

"This man's eyes were full of tears," Thornton said. "He told me about Miss Mary who had seen something special in him. I never would have dreamed she was a black lady."

When Thornton asked the man, "What do you see, when you see me?" He simply replied "A man."

"When I began working at Coke, I made $5 an hour," Thornton said. "Now I'm a member of the Board of Directors. I held the first McDonald’s franchise by an African-American in Birmingham. I have so many accomplishments. I was taking notes my entire adult life. That is what is in this book."