For decades, Key West has been renowned for its residents' welcoming and accepting attitude toward people of all kinds. But it took local artist and graphic designer JT Thompson to initiate formal recognition of that philosophy of inclusiveness, when he conceived the now global "One Human Family" concept.
Thompson arrived on the island in 1979 from Venice, California. Formerly a graphic designer at the Los Angeles Herald, he was motivated to seek a new lifestyle after two stress-related coronary stoppages.
"From the beginning I saw that Key Westers treated each other as equals and strove to make the island a paradise," he said.
Thompson promptly embraced the slow pace and atmosphere of personal honesty and karmic balance he discovered on the island. In 1981, he and his best friend, Bob Beckwith, opened a graphic design firm that today is called Design Group Key West.
The firm quickly put the duo at the forefront of the island's innovative, slightly renegade arts and cultural community. Clients ranged from local theaters to hotels, restaurants and attractions; and Thompson, with his signature long dark hair and walrus mustache, became a welcome fixture at island events.
Meanwhile, a concept was percolating in his mind.
"I wanted to reclaim the word 'family,' which had taken on an exclusionary feel nationwide — and I wanted the word to include everyone," Thompson said. "In 1999, I came up with the words that would show people we are all one, extensions of each other."
He designed and printed a bumper sticker reading "All People Are Created Equal Members of ONE HUMAN FAMILY."
On the first day of the new millennium in 2000, he started handing out free stickers. They were snapped up by friends, visitors to Key West and total strangers who spotted them and were captivated by the message they expressed.
"I probably wouldn't have come to the concept if I had been living anywhere else," Thompson admitted. "Our tight-knit and supportive community understands how valuable 'paying it forward' is — and we do."
In October 2000, the Key West City Commission unanimously adopted One Human Family as the island's official philosophy. The commission's proclamation read, in part, "Key West is an enlightened island community that is passionate about all living together as caring, sharing neighbors ... We want to share our unique perspective and simple (but true) words of hope, 'ONE HUMAN FAMILY,' with our global neighbors, so others can find inspiration to grow beyond the artificial limitations of racism, nationalism, sexism, classism, monotheism, prejudice, homophobia (and every other illusion used to try to separate us from all being equal) ..."
A few months later the Keys' Monroe County adopted it for the entire island chain.
Today the message that all people are members of One Human Family resonates around the world, carried by more than 2.55 million free bumper stickers that have been distributed to people in 95 countries — including members of the remote Datoga tribe in Africa's Sahara Desert.
An all-volunteer nonprofit group spearheads the stickers' distribution, with printing and mailing funded by donations. The easygoing Thompson is quick to credit local groups including the Key West Wreckers Leather Club, the Queen Mother Pageant and Bingo at 801 for helping fund the message.
"There are literally millions of people worldwide who have helped distribute free stickers to every corner of the globe — including the South Pole Science Station," he said.
Carnival Cruise Lines, Tropicana Orange Juice, the AFL-CIO and other organizations have used the concept to increase awareness of diversity. Thompson reported that world leaders including Barack Obama and Pope Francis have referenced it in speeches, and the Dalai Lama included it in writings.
What Thompson finds most rewarding is receiving letters from people inspired by the One Human Family message to promote unity and equality. He cited one from an 11-year-old Virginia girl who requested 100 stickers for her fifth-grade class, which she said included a few students who were racist.
"A month later she wrote back saying she had met with each student individually, told them what One Human Family meant, and that I shouldn't worry about racism — because SHE was going to fix that!" Thompson related.
These days, Thompson divides his time between his graphic design work, helping publicize local arts and theater and enjoying the island with his rescue dog Beau. And always he strives to promote the concept that, born in Key West, has the potential to help change the world.
"I hope One Human Family can continue to unite people and bring down the artificial barriers that keep the world seeing situations as 'us versus them'," he said. "In reality, there is no 'them' — there's just the rest of us in another place."
Thompson always strives to promote the concept that, born in Key West, has the potential to help change the world. Images: Rob O'Neal
In October 2000, the Key West City Commission unanimously adopted One Human Family as the island’s official philosophy. The commission’s proclamation read, in part, “Key West is an enlightened island community that is passionate about all living together as caring, sharing neighbors.
Today the message that all people are members of One Human Family resonates around the world, carried by more than 2.55 million free bumper stickers that have been distributed to people in 95 countries.