On Saturday, nearly a month after a Smyrna police office fatally shot him, Nicholas Thomas was laid to rest under a deep gray sky.
His burial in the Crestlawn Cemetery followed a 90 minute service at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where a diverse crowd of several hundred gathered to remember the 23-year-old father.
Thomas died March 24 after Sgt. Kenneth Owens, a policeman since 2001, tried to serve him with an arrest warrant. Officers contend Thomas got into a customer’s Maserati and tried to run them over rather than submit to arrest. Owens fired into the moving car, which came to a stop outside the Cumberland Parkway Goodyear tire store where Thomas worked.
Reaction to the shooting was swift. Thomas’s parents and some community leaders, including U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson Johnson, called the young man’s death “the latest in a disturbing trend of killings of unarmed African American men.”
Johnson asked mourners to “spring to action for positive change. Let our actions always be in the spirit of nonviolence.”
Earlier this week Johnson (D-Lithonia), said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives “It feels like open season on black men in America.”
That sentiment punctuated much of the service, beginning with the prayer and the choir’s moving rendition of “Glory,” the soaring Academy Award-winning ballad at the heart of the movie “Selma.” As the song drew to an end dancers, performing in front of the steel blue closed casket, where Thomas lay dead, held up white placard bearing the same messages seen at protests across the country: “Hands up, Don’t Shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” and “I Am A Man.”
Johnson said that while he did not know Nick, he couldn’t help cry looking at photographs of him and his 5-month-old daughter London.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, why are so many things going unsaid ……or even more…unheard,” he asked.
Huey Thomas, Nick’s father, thanked the congressman and Ebenezer Pastor Raphael Warnock for standing with them.
“We need to change,” he said. “We gotta change.”
In the days leading up to the service, Warnock said that a passage in the seventh chapter of Luke in which Jesus encounters a funeral procession, had captured his spiritual imagination.
“Here we are again standing in this place dealing with this issue again,” he said. “A young man had died. A young black man has had his life taken from him.”
Warnock said that the community has come to the intersection of justice and injustice and of fear and love.
“We’ve got to learn how to love one another,” he said.
The GBI is investigating the circumstances surrounding Thomas’ death and its findings will then be turned over to the Cobb district attorney’s office for review.
Thomas was the second unarmed black man to die in March following confrontations with metro Atlanta police officers. Anthony Hill, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was shot and killed March 9 by a DeKalb County officer who alleged the Afghanistan war veteran charged him in a threatening manner.
The GBI is also investigating Hill’s death.
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