Thomas Gaither - Activist and Biologist

By Laura Briscoe

Feb 1 2021

Dr. Thomas Walter Gaither (1938 - ) was born in Great Falls, South Carolina. Both his parents were teachers, although his father resigned in protest after realizing he was being paid less than his contract stipulated, and less than his white counterparts¹. Gaither grew up in a home where education and the fight for equality were both important.

During his time as an undergraduate at Claflin University, he became involved with the NAACP and became a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He organized a sit-in at a segregated diner, and recruited 8 other students. The "Friendship 9" were promptly arrested. Instead of paying bail into a government that supported segregation, the nine activists chose a sentence of 30 days of hard labor². As soon as we was released, Gaither began organizing with CORE for the 1961 Freedom Rides. He was responsbile for setting the bus itinerary through the segregated states, making sure at each stop legal representation for the Freedom Riders was available. His work as a central organizer for civil rights came to an end along with his deferment of the selective service, and he was drafted into the army. He had deep reservations about military service because of his commitment to non violence³. He was however determined 'lacking in moral character' because of his history of civil rights-related arrests, and was able to return to school.

Gaither received a master's degree from Atlanta University and a PhD from the University of Iowa. He joined Slippery Rock State College (now Slippery Rock University) in 1968 and had a successful teaching career as a biology professor until he retired in 2007. He collected many fungi and slime molds, one of which is held at NYBG.

Here we have a fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, collected by Dr. Gaither and his wife Diane.

A Closer Look

¹ Library of Congress, Thomas Walter Gaither oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2011. Available  at  (accessed January 27, 2021).

² Slippery Rock Univeristy, Friendship 9 leader receives doctor of laws. Available at (accessed January 27, 2021).

³ The University of Mississippi, Interview with Thomas Gaither for the Freedom Riders 40th Anniversary Oral History Project, 2001. Avalable at (accessed January 27, 2021).