TUPELO – A lot of us have strong political and social convictions, but not many have had to flee a burning bus and take a beating because of them.
Hank Thomas has.
In the spring of 1961, Thomas was one of 13 brave souls who boarded a bus in Washington, D.C. It was headed south, through Jim Crow country, in order to draw attention to laws against segregation that weren’t being enforced.
“The majority of Mississippians were – and are – good, fair-minded people,” said Thomas, who visited Tupelo on Friday to speak to a gathering of the Mississippi Economic Council. “But, back then, the Ku Klux Klan was setting the agenda, and well-intentioned people were scared.”
History would remember them as “Freedom Riders,” a group of students and activists, both black and white, who wanted to show that there was a wide canyon between the law as it existed on the books and how it was enforced in everyday life in the South.
In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful to segregate restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals servicing buses that crossed interstate lines. That was the law. The reality in the South, however, was very different.
On Thomas’ first ride his bus was firebombed outside Anniston, Ala., and he and others were beaten as they disembarked. On his second trip, a few days later, he was arrested for using a “whites only” bathroom in a Jackson bus station.
Thomas was sent to Parchman, along with dozens of other riders who arrived from all over the country. They were held under conditions that would outrage any contemporary civil rights watchdog.
The rides, which took place all throughout the South, provided a spark for the civil rights movement and helped set an example for non-violent protests.
Thomas’ Tupelo visit came by way of his success as a businessman in Atlanta. When he returned from Vietnam, where he earned a Purple Heart as a combat medic, he started a coin-op laundry business, then moved on to fast food and hotels. His visit also offered a good opportunity to spread the word about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
Surviving riders and historians will gather in Jackson May 22-28 for a week of remembrance. Thomas chairs the group that is planning the event.
Jeanne Luckett, one of the organizers, estimated that there were 450 original riders, at least 100 of whom are deceased. “We’ve made good contact with about 180,” she said.
As a 19-year-old pre-med student at Howard University, Thomas was one of the younger riders.
According to Thomas, “Mississippi Freedom 50th” won’t be a reopening of old wounds.
“We’re not going to do a victory dance,” he said, laughing. Rather, it will be a look at how far the state has come in honoring civil rights and racial equality.
“We want to celebrate the wonderful change that has taken place, while at the same time honoring the sacrifice and hardships that many endured to achieve this,” he said.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GALEN HOLLEY / NEMS Daily Journal