Fighting That Good Fight: Freedom Rider Hank Thomas

by Ben Fuller

Copy Editor, ’16, English

hank thomas (2)On January 22nd in the Dickson Assembly Room, LaGrange College celebrated Martin Luther King Day with a CE Event welcoming speaker Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. During his speech, Thomas gave tribute to Martin Luther King, reflected on his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, evaluated the current state of the United States in terms of race relations, and looked ahead to a bright future.

Adam Roberts, campus chaplain, opened the event with prayer, citing Galatians 3:28 as spiritual support for the fight for human equality. He concluded his prayer by saying, “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Afterwards, President McAlexander took the podium. He admitted LaGrange College’s troubled history with race relations, from a slaveholder’s founding to a once racially exclusive admittance policy. However, in this reflection, he noted how far the country had come in improving issues of equality and, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, introduced Mr. Thomas as one of the leading activists who made those changes possible.

Mr. Thomas warmly greeted his vast audience with a recitation of Dr. King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and with a poem, “I Dreamed I Saw Dr. King.” He stated that the Civil Rights movement “opened up freedom from waves of people disenfranchised,” in terms of not only race, but gender and sexuality, as well. He described the past injustices of laws that have inhibited equal rights, noting that “We’ve come a long, long way, but not all the way.”

“Each generation must continue the fight,” he continued, and he argued that the struggle for equality is ongoing. Again, he cited poetry, speaking lines from Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” He described the hardships accompanying the journey for equal rights, and condemned such things as modern stereotyping and the stand-your-ground law. Telling of his service as a Tuskegee Airman in the 54th colored regiment, he admitted both his struggle and achievement in “fighting for liberties for others when [he] didn’t have rights here in LaGrange.”

He stated he was proud of his generation’s work in the fight for equality, and even amid the struggles of today, is perpetually proud to be an American. He views Barack Obama’s election as a major triumph in American history and anticipates more minority presidents.

Mr. Thomas criticized the modern term “polarizing” when referring to such figures as Obama, noting that several prominent figures in black history were also labeled as such (including Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and James Meredith), yet made a difference. He spoke of the achievements of voter equality and the Civil Rights Act, but noted the bloodshed involved. He thanked the Jewish people and Holocaust survivors for their sympathy and aid in the movement.

Mr. Thomas continued his praise of America, calling it “a wonderful country” and advocating the remembrance of the military mantra “be all you can be.” Again referencing literature, he qualified that there was relevant truth in a certain famous line by Charles Dickens, saying that “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.” He said that parts of our community remain in crisis and cannot be helped by the political system alone. He calls the country, in its current state, the “New America,” propelled by the talents and skills of immigrants from generations ago. He encouraged this generation, living in this America, to leave an equally great legacy. Quoting Dr. King, he said “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Mr. Thomas followed his words of encouragement by relating his own personal experience in making change happen and the situations he miraculously survived. He related his stories of non-violent resistance and being jailed for using a “whites’ only” bathroom. While in a cop car in Winnsboro, South Carolina, he was forced to exit with a mob of the KKK outside. He ran and was picked up by a driver who happened to be a black World War II veteran, and they escaped together. He considered this escape miraculous and praised God.

He told a story of what he saw as divine mercy: as a Freedom Rider, he was riding a bus that was set aflame by a grenade. With a mob outside, he was forced at the age of 19 to choose his death: being either burned alive or beaten. He briefly considered suicide by inhaling the smoke, but in an instant, the flames blew out the fuel tank, setting the passengers free, and he escaped. He was hit with a baseball bat, but the white ambulance drivers refused to take him or the passengers for treatment. He used a white police officer as a shield from the mob, and, amazingly, the officer dispersed the crowd rather than killing him. Again, he credited and thanked God.

Concluding, Mr. Thomas stated that “When [he] was on that bus, [he] was in search of that elusive American dream.” He proclaimed that “that dream of old has not been tarnished” and that America has indeed come a long way. He proclaimed he’d always cite 2 Timothy, that he’d “fought the good fight,” and summarized his story as simply this: “I saw something wrong and did something about it,” and encouraged this generation to do likewise.

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