hankthomasmug.jpg


From Eric Etheridge's blog, we have this great piece on Freedom Rider Hank Thomas. As an aside, Eric says you guys have been bumrushing his site. Keep it up, and buy the book.

At any rate, when Thomas was a sophmore at Howard (H-U!) he joined up with the Freedom Riders and headed South. In Alabama, he was on a bus that was fire-bombed. And then after he escaped the bus with his comrades, he was beaten by a mob. There's more on Thomas's story at Eric's site. Here's Thomas's first person account of returning to Anniston, Alabama, 30 years later:

The memory's still fresh. Still vivid. 

Folks down in Anniston was it two years ago invited me back. I won't say they had a Hank Thomas Day, but they had a large crowd at the gymnasium of a private school. Had a banner out front that said, "Welcome back Hank Thomas, American Hero." 

I appreciated that. I got to make the speech that I always wanted to make. "The Freedom Rider has returned!" [Laughs.] 

 The organizers of the event tried very hard to get some of the people they knew were there [in the mob that attacked bus] to meet with me. Of course, they would not. 

I talked about the irony that none of those whites there would meet with me. When I went back with CBS to Anniston on the 30th anniversary [in 1991], a man who was in that mob refused to shake my hand. However, when I went back to Vietnam in '94, the North Vietnamese veterans embraced me. 

We were enemies one time but now friends. They invited me to their homes. And I told 'em, contrast that with the folks in Anniston. One reporter made what I thought was a very important comparison. He said, "Well, Hank, the Vietnamese wanted to kill you because of the color of the uniform you were wearing. The people in Anniston wanted to kill you because of the color you are, and that never changes." 


There was one part in my Anniston speech that I kinda got into the Baptist preacher mode. I told them I'd love to meet some of the people who were in that mob that day. If I could talk to those folks, I'd say, "There is no bitterness." I'd just sit down and say, "Hey." Show them pictures of my grandchildren, and hope they'd show me pictures of their grandchildren. I'd ask them about their life. 

And this is when I'd stick it to 'em. I would say to them, "When I left Anniston, I went back to Howard University to finish my education. But what did you do with your life? And when I left for Howard University, eventually I got started in business. But what did you do with your life? I got started in the laundromat business and then from there, I bought a Dairy Queen franchise." And always with the response, "But what did you do with your life?" And then I'd say, "And now the Freedom Rider is back, and I'd like to meet you." 

I got a tremendous response from the audience. That was a speech I always wanted to make.  One thing did happen on that trip to Anniston. While I could not meet with anybody who was a part of the mob, I did meet with a relative, I think a sister. A local minister there arranged for us to have dinner together. And a very curious comment she made. 

The man who had arranged the thing was telling her something about my life since then. He said, "Four years after Hank left here, he was in Vietnam defending the country." He said, "Now think about it. At the time he was in Vietnam defending the country, he still could not eat in a restaurant in downtown Anniston. And people are trying to kill him because he's an American." 

In her way of trying to explain things, she said, "Well, let me ask you something. When you were in Vietnam, the communists were trying to kill you. Right?" 

I said, "Yeah." 

"They were trying to kill you because you were their enemy." 

I said, "Yeah." 

She said, "Well, that's the way it was here." 

And there was this silence. And I'm saying, "Huh?" [Laughs.] 

I said, "But we were Americans." 

She said, "I understand that. But you were the enemy. And that's why they were trying to kill you." 

The other two people at the table were mortified. They could not believe she said that. But at least she spoke the truth about her feeling. 

"Well," I said, "bring on the dessert." [Laughs.]

I was, I admit, taken aback by some of the bitterness in Thomas' story. There has always been a class element in the dynamic between Civil Rights movement folks and many of the people they often found themselves fighting. White supremacy meant that no matter how high any black person rose, they would always have to lower their eyes and doff their hat when they saw someone white. I don't want to simplify this too much, but there's a great scene in The Great Debaters that captures what I mean. Anyway, these are the kind of small things, the kind of social power, that would cause poor whites to "act against their own interest." In fact, they were doing no such thing. 

The destruction of systemic white supremacy meant the end of a kind of social power for poor and working whites. I don't think we appreciate what that must have entailed. There are echoes of the French Revolution. The Civil Rights movement did not simply integrate the South, it demolished an aristocracy, and  destroyed a set of divine rights which whites had enjoyed for over three centuries. 

Thomas was a college student. I'd be willing to bet that the people beating him were not. I've talked to some folks who integrated public schools down South. They tended to best their white peers, in part because they had to, but also because they were, essentially, immigrants. They were the hungriest of the hungry, hailing from a people who'd been starved for generations. They just could not fail.

Given what Thomas went through, I find his bitterness understandable. I can't say I'd be much different.

UPDATE: Eric was nice enough to join us in comments and offer the following:

I have to say I was surprised to see TNC use the word "bitter" as well, because having spent time with Hank, that's not how I think of him or think of his speech in Anniston, as he recounts it. But maybe I'm not the best judge.

Hank has always been aggressive about defending/asserting his rights -- from when he was a little child in St. Augustine, FL, to the movement, to his service in Vietnam (as a medic) and ever since in business.

I think someone said it above -- he was saying This is what I did with my life, despite your hate and your effort to kill me. And what did you do with your life?
It's a pointed question, for sure. But bitter, not so sure.

My sense of this pretty simple. Eric was there. I was not. His sense of things deserves deference and should be heeded.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.