JACKSON – It’s been 50 years since I last saw Hank Thomas, then a tall, black, skinny 19-year-old Howard University student.
He arrived May 24, 1961 with the first batch of 13 “freedom riders” to step off a Trailways bus here and enter the “white only” section of the bus station, to be promptly arrested by blue-capped Jackson police officers.
As a news reporter who closely watched the entire episode unfold, I did not know then who Henry Thomas was. But I do know now as I sit down with a distinguished 70-year-old bespectacled black man in slacks and long-sleeved sports shirt, and learn Thomas’ career since he and a few other African-Americans bravely sought to crack the nation’s most rigid color barrier has been fabulously successful, earned the hard way.
For starters, think of Hank Thomas now as an Atlanta civic leader and hotel magnate who owns three Marriott Hotels and a McDonald’s franchise. His right hand functions well now, only after having been reconstructed at Walter Reed Hospital. Thomas took a North Vietnamese army bullet in 1965 while as an Army medic he canvassed a battle field strewn with downed Americans looking for the living and yanking dog-tags off the dead ones.
Thomas was sent to Vietnam after he volunteered for the Army to head off being drafted. Because of his pre-med courses at Howard, he was assigned as a medic attached to an Army unit which soon discovered the North Vietnamese soldiers were much shrewder and tougher fighters than U.S. commanders led them to believe.
But back to freedom rider Hank Thomas arriving into another hostile environment in Jackson (the bus had started in Washington on May 4, but was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and riders, including Hank, beaten by a mob). One of Thomas’ fellow riders was young John Lewis–now U.S. Rep. Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and revered icon of the Civil Rights movement. Ironically, a Mississippi National Guard officer in charge of guardsmen ordered by Gov. Ross Barnett to ride the bus safely into Jackson (in a secret deal with Atty. Gen. Bobby Kennedy) was Lt. Col. G.V. Sonny Montgomery, later to become a House colleague of Rep. Lewis.
Jackson’s city jail quickly overflowed with more arriving riders, so the initial 13 (who refused bail and got 60-days jail time for breach of peace) were carted off to notorious Parchman Penitentiary and housed in maximum security cells. When riders ignored commands to stop singing freedom songs, prison guards began yanking their one-inch thick “mattresses” and turned fire hoses on them. After his Mississippi experience (and before joining the Army in 1964) Thomas was trained by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and became field secretary in Huntsville and Birmingham. As a CORE foot soldier, Thomas was arrested 22 times for civil disobedience until CORE pulled him out of Alabama.
At Walter Reed, Thomas struck up a business partnership with another wounded Vietnam vet. They settled in Atlanta, getting jobs as city firemen and began a sideline of placing coin-operated washing machines and dryers in apartment buildings. The enterprising firemen’s story was featured in an Atlanta newspaper and then other business offers poured in. Soon Thomas and his partner had a string of four Dairy Queens and then a franchisee for Burger King.
The two split up when Thomas branched out in 1995 to start building Marriott Hotels, forming his own company to develop and operate the hotels, along with a McDonald’s Quick Service chain. A half dozen civic groups asked him to serve on their boards, and in 2009 he was elected as a trustee of Morehouse Medical school. Thomas meantime served as vice-chair of the board of Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi.
In the 1990s, Thomas went back to Vietnam to revisit I-Drang in the central highlands where he and his Army unit suffered heavy losses when North Vietnamese surprised them in an ambush in November of 1965. “I met and talked to a Vietnamese soldier who was there that day and asked him how they knew we were coming,” Thomas said. “Your helicopters,” the Vietnamese answered.
Some 300 freedom riders were arrested in Jackson during 1961. A week-long series of events next May called “Mississippi Freedom 50th” will honor the historic event. It’s planned by a national board, chaired by Hank Thomas.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.