My radical cousin . . .

A few months before my book came out, I got a call. “This is the other radical Watkins cousin,” a voice said.

I said, “I didn’t know I had a radical cousin.

It was Thomas Naylor, a Mississippi cousin I hadn’t seen since high school. Our grandfathers were two of six Watkins brothers. We were born in the same year in the same town, but grew up hardly knowing one another. You could do that in our many-cousined clan, especially since my parents shunted me off to school a year early and Thomas and I were never in the same class.

We got to know one another during that long phone conversation, and through his many follow-up letters, written in spiky, almost unreadable, print with a green marker. He taught Economics at Duke for thirty years and retired to Vermont. He was the author and co-author of thirty books.

Thomas turned out to be far more radical than I ever dreamed of being. I wrote a memoir about growing up liberal during the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, and running away. Thomas founded the Second Vermont Republic, seeking secession from the Union. The U.S. had become too large, he claimed, and could no longer be managed as a democracy. Vermont would be part of the Northern Kingdom, with Canada as its major trading partner. Having few resources for the rest of the country to envy, he claimed the State wouldn’t be missed.

second vt republic flag

We both had disagreed with our family’s conservative politics and talked about the moment the realization hit us that something was terribly wrong with the way we lived in the South. My awakening came at 18, when Brown v. Board of Education integrated the schools. Thomas said he woke up during Summer Bible School in the fifth grade: a visiting anthropologist spoke about the non-existent difference between the races. It speaks to the silence liberals and moderates felt obliged to maintain in Mississippi, that we felt the same and never knew.

My book came out in 2011, and Thomas was my best cheerleader. He had a huge network of friends, relatives and colleagues. He told everyone about the book. When I read in Jackson, he flew in from Vermont with both his children and hosted a large dinner for the Watkins cousins. It tickled him that the restaurant was in a bed and breakfast once owned by the head of Sovereignty Commission.

Thomas died on December 12, after suffering a massive stroke. His wife Magdalena will bring his ashes to Mississippi in March, spreading them in the places he found meaningful—including, she says, his parents’ graves. “Which, I guess,” our cousin Vaughn McRae said, “is a kind of reconciliation.”

Thomas Naylor

He was a generous friend with a brilliant and original mind. We didn’t know each other long enough and I will miss him.

16 responses »

  1. Sondra Alexander

    I’m so sorry Norma. It would have been nice to have an ally when you were growing up.
    Much love,

  2. So sorry to hear this news Norma. Our deepest sympathies and may Thomas rest in peace.
    We have, to us, the tragic news that our youngest puppy got free and was run over about 4 yesterday. He was 1 year old, a beautiful dog, super intelligent, a goof ball at times and a real character. Both of us and the pack will really miss him, already do.
    much love

  3. That’s so sad. I’m glad to have learned about him through your writing

  4. You were blessed to be reconnected with him at an important time. Celebrate the rediscovery more than grieve the loss. This is exactly what you did by sharing this sweet story.

  5. Norma. Condolences on your loss. Finding a strange solace in learning of kindred hearts and minds in the world of which we were unaware. Glad you were able to connect, if only briefly, with one of yours. Joyce

  6. My condolences to you. I haven often wondered whether there were young white people who were anti-racist who knew other kids who felt the same? If so, did they share their views with each other at the time or were they too afraid to do so? To date I have only heard or read about “individuals” who were opposed to segregation and who kept their views to themselves.

  7. It is wonderful you shared so much before it was too late. I lived in VT and, indeed, it is another country–truly a “live and let live” place. I enjoyed reading your tribute to Thomas.

  8. What a deeply satisfying rememberence you have wriiten. It makes me wish I had know your cousin. Thank you for letting me miss him too. Ann

  9. How great to have a kindred kin spirit. Sorry for your loss, Norma.

  10. Very sad to lose a comrade-in-arms, even if you have waged your battles separately.

    I read something about the 2nd Vt Republic. It spoke of eliminating the super nations. Does that actually solve our problems? Doesn’t that just break up groups of people into more concentrated groups that might end up as radical principalities ultimately.

    Imagine Texas as an independent State (or Mississippi!). Most Texans are actually considerably more thoughtful than their visible politicians would appear, but the legislature has so severely gerrymandered their voting districts that the fringe elements are in power over an increasingly liberal electorate.

    We DO need to return to thinking of community, rather than super powers. A true sense of community makes our society healthier.

    Of course, I have no clue what the solution to the world’s problems is. If only someone did.

    Thomas was obviously a brave and outspoken proponent of doing things differently than we are bumbling along now. We need more of him. I am sure he will be missed by all who knew him.

  11. Such a lovely elegy, Norma

    Jill Myers

  12. Nice write up, Norma.

    I still suspect you’re the little girl that lived next door on Madison St. It’s too much of a coincidence that those street numbers are so close. Do you remember from way back then if you had a swing or not?

    Bob Korndorffer

  13. Dear Norma,

    I am just now getting around to my emails…I had a ton of them. I couldn’t sleep so this was my task.  I just read this most interesting email regarding your cousin.  I am sorry for your loss of the cousin you had recently found.  He sounded very much like a cousin I would expect you to have. I would have enjoyed knowing him and got a glimpse of him in your email.

    I am looking forward to seeing you in Feb. 

    Love ya,



  14. i feel compelled to leave a reply here. He was my first cousin and like a brother.
    in the early years. There remains to this day a lump on my head from an errant hardball, not caught by him. Our mothers were sisters and very close. Even though later known as Tom, he will always be Sonny. He made the choice to succeed to VT.
    The south was always the best part of him. Just saying…..


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