Freedom Rider Hank Thomas seeks racial reconciliation after 50 years of change

Hank Thomas, 70, recalled the fear factor that gripped him as one of the first Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi 50 years ago and a similar fear that he endured as a wounded soldier in Vietnam. The fear induced by the threats and assaults during the civil rights movement were far more horrendous than the bullet that hit him in the war, he says.  Placed on Parchman’s Death Row after riding the buses into Jackson beginning on May 24, 1961, as a part of the plan to desegregate travel facilities in  Mississippi, Thomas and his compeers swelled the prison cells and kept their spirits up by singing at every opportunity they had. “I never lost my fear of dying,” Thomas said. “It was a question of conquering that fear.”  Although the horrors of the Vietnam War wracked his mind and soul almost constantly in the years after the Civil Rights experience, Thomas says his greatest fear came when white racists set the Freedom Riders’ bus on fire in Anniston, Alabama, and forced the doors closed so no one could get off the burning bus.  “The mob outside held the doors,” he said. “And their cries were, ‘Let’s burn them n—-rs alive, let’s burn them n—–rs alive.   “That was when I thought I was really going to die. But once I got beyond that, it became obvious that most of my fears had been rendered neutral, because then it was a matter of being determined to go on to see what the end was going to be like.”  Being shot in an ambush in Vietnam, Thomas said that the civil rights battle instilled the greater amount of fear in him. As the board chairman of the Mississippi Freedom 50th Foundation, Inc, the organization with the primary responsibility of conduction the 50 year reunion, Thomas said that he was pleased to be the apostle of reconciliation today while before he was engaged in confrontation.   In a letter summoning all surviving Freedom Riders of that brief moment from May 1961 through February 1962, Thomas expressed both the pathos and the glory that typified the uncertainty of the times and the promise of the future.  “In May 1961, (now Georgia Congressman) John Lewis and I and 11 other brave souls boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses and departed Washington, D. C.,” Thomas in his 2010 letter. “This was the beginning of the Freedom rides. Before the end of that year, 436 people from across America would become Freedom Riders, joining us in the effort to end segregation in interstate transportation. And the Riders were successful!”  In the five days of commemoration, the plan is to gather in at least 150 of the original 436 Freedom Riders, along with at least 1500 others, to participate in educational forums, cultural events, ceremonies of various kinds, including exhibits, films, an interfaith memorial service, and a variety of other opportunities to interact with the people who helped shape the nation’s history into what it has become today.  “The reunion will be the last time that many of us will ever see each other again, “Thomas said in response to a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters in the corridor just outside the senate chamber.”Since most of us came to Jackson at various times, sometimes weeks and months apart, many of us never got to know the other Freedom Riders. Most of us only got to know the riders who were on the bus with us. So we will get a chance to meet and greet people we never saw before, and obviously we’ll be able to congratulate ourselves on our contributions to what has happened in the last 50 years. But also in keeping with the theme of reconciliation, given that 90 percent of the Freedom Riders have not been back in Mississippi since that time, so the image they have of Mississippi is what they saw and endured while they were here.”   Thomas says he has traveled through many states and urged former Freedom Riders to come and take note of the changes in the Magnolia State. “I tell them you’ve got to come back and see the changes that have taken place in Mississippi.   For somebody who doesn’t live here and who has come back on several occasions over the years, I see a tremendous change.   We want them to come back and bask in the glow of the appreciation that people of Jackson, both black and white, have for their early groundwork.”   The entire machinery of state government is geared up to support this effort and in some offices there has been talk of attracting millions of visitors who would like to relive those crucial years that brought profound change in politics and social life in Mississippi and the South through direct–and mostly nonviolent-confrontation of Jim Crow. Coupled with other commemorative civil activities leading up to the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Summer 1964, the celebrations have the firm support of Gov. Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and the state legislature.  Barbour is the unofficial chairman of Mississippi Civil Rights Commemoration. State Senator John Horhn was the main sponsor of the resolution adopted by the senate Wednesday recognizing the Freedom Riders’ success in “sending shock waves through American society” and impressing “blacks living in rural areas throughout the South who later formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.””This resolution is an effort on the part of the state senate to pay tribute to the Freedom Riders,” Horhn said shortly after presenting Thomas with the commemorative Senate Concurrent Resolution 580.   “Mr. Thomas will be in and out of the state for some time over the next few weeks with the culminating activity for the actual commemoration anniversary taking place May 24-26.”  Horhn says there will be many more events and commemorative ceremonies in honor of the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights workers coming from both the state government and the various communities in Mississippi.   Thomas says that he is looking forward to the May 22-26 Freedom Rider commemoration. But before then, he plans to attend the annual Conference of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement March 23-26 at Jackson State University.   For further information about these events, contact Cynthia Palmer at 601-979-1515 or 601-979-1520; email: MississippiCivilRightsVetereans@gmail.org.; or visit the Website: www.MSCivilRightsVeterans.org.