Thelma Clark's death of a heart attack July 7 in a Lumberton hospital didn't attract much notice, considering how closely she was tied to one of North Carolina's most controversial figures.
Clark, who was 67 when she died, grew up dirt poor in Richmond County and quit school during eighth grade to spend more time working in cotton fields. She spent much of her life scraping her way up and supporting her family, and later became a nurse. She raised three children, mostly by herself. Her son, Eddie Hatcher, the renegade folk hero recently convicted of murder, was the one who kept her busiest.
Those who've followed Hatcher's tragic trajectory--from the quixotic takeover of a newspaper office in 1988 to the 1999 drive-by shooting for which he was convicted in May of this year--may remember Clark. She was the grandmotherly lady seated in courtrooms, staring intently through thick glasses at the prosecutors, judges and juries that weighed her son's fate. She was the one cloistered by Hatcher supporters or sometimes standing alone, telling reporters that her son had been framed and that something was rotten in Robeson County.
The dozens of young activists who joined the Eddie Hatcher Defense Committee remember her as one of their own.
"We kind of saw her like a young person because of the spirit she had," says John Johnson, a 21-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student who spent many a night camped out at Clark's house during Hatcher's trials. "We got energy from her."
Helping Hatcher defend himself was a full-time job, but Clark somehow also found time to agitate for other prisoners she believed were wronged by the system. "She was fighting for everybody," Johnson says. "Not just her son."
Clark seemed resigned to a life of continually butting heads with the authorities. But even though her victories were rare and small, "her spirits were always strong," says Ginger Ammerman, Clark's daughter, "and for many years she had accepted the path Eddie had chosen."
Prison officials allowed Hatcher to view Clark's body. Restrained by handcuffs, he asked his sister to help him place a Native American medicine bag on his mother's chest. Clark's children brought a wreath with a ribbon that read, "A mother of history."
These were small tokens of gratitude for a woman who had gone to giant lengths to secure fair treatment for her son. Last fall, when Hatcher was preparing his defense in his murder trial, I asked him where he looked for encouragement.
"My momma's always been a key figure in keeping my faith up and my hope," he answered.
Thelma Clark kept her faith in Hatcher, and her hope for justice, longer than most people have.