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Irma Thomas gives lesson in Civil Rights history to FBI agents

You've seen Irma Thomas performing on stage for decades, but today federal agents from across Louisiana saw another kind of performance from her.

NEW ORLEANS — You've seen Irma Thomas performing on stage for decades, but today federal agents from around the state saw another kind of performance from her.

The Soul Queen of New Orleans took them on a personal journey of her life, the tough times and the good times. 

The FBI New Orleans Field Office has one of the most productive civil rights programs in the U.S, including hate crime investigations and law enforcement misconduct.

And for Black History Month, a couple of hundred FBI agents and staff, gathered to hear stories of pre-civil rights segregation from performer Irma Thomas and her days on the road.

"You would get arrested and put in jail for being guilty by association. I didn't smoke and didn't drink, and I sure wasn't going to jail for somebody else's problem. So, what I would do — I would dress in the car," Thomas said. 

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She explained how she either didn't have a dressing room or had to share one with the musicians. If they were smoking marijuana she would have been arrested if she was in the same room as they were.

She says because of segregation, she had to learn things like how to fix her own car engine when mechanics would not.

"Survival is the thing I know how to do very well. Today or tomorrow, I get to the point where I can't make a living singing. I know how to sew. I do a mean pot of red beans and rice."

She told stories of survival as a teen mother, having one of her children in the car on the Broad Street overpass. She talked about getting fired as a diner dishwasher and while working as a waitress for $0.50 an hour because she would sing on the job. But as the world now knows, that lead her to a record contract and Grammy award. She said of all the famous people she worked with, one stood out. 

"On my 55th birthday, I had the pleasure and the honor of sharing the recording studio with B. B. King, and the song was "We're going to Make It." And we've been making it ever since. That was my biggest pride and joy," she said putting her hand to her heart.

She told the group she is a fan of older music because songs have a storyline, and not the ones today. And when she was asked what her favorite song to sing is, she said: "I Wish Someone Would Care."

Irma Thomas says one of her favorite honors was when her image was on a Schwegmann's Grocery bag.

She has not missed performing at a jazz fest since 1974. She'll be in the gospel tent again this year.

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