The bus firebomb made Freedom Rider Hank Thomas stronger.
Thomas remembers the smoke from the firebomb going into his lungs 55 years ago near Anniston.
Survival instincts rushed his body and moved him off the floor of that bus, but when he got to the door, he couldn’t open it. The people who had bombed the bus were blocking it shut. At the age of 19, and as the smoke and heat filled the bus, Thomas thought that death was near.
“They tossed a firebomb into the rear of the bus, then pushed on the doors so we couldn’t get out. I remember someone saying to get low on the ground. I did, but when the smoke got in my lungs, I ran to the front. Then the hand of God intervened. The fire got to the gas tank and the back of the bus exploded. We were able to get out that way,” Thomas said.
Thomas was one of the 1961 Freedom Riders who traveled throughout the “Jim Crow” South to fight segregation. Besides Anniston, they ran into trouble in Anniston and other cities in Alabama and Mississippi. The federal government sent U.S. marshals to protect the riders.
Thomas shared his dramatic story along with Janie Forsyth, the girl who gave the riders water in Anniston, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute last week. He continues to be an “eternal optimist” as he travels around the country and tells how far the South has come.
“Look at this room,” Thomas said. “Look at all of you people. Fifty-five years ago, we would have all been in jail. Now we have an African-American in the White House. We’ve come a long way.”
I asked Thomas how different racism is now. His answer shows his positive and forward thinking.
“We do still have racism, but it’s different. When we started the civil rights movement, we wanted to clear the hurdles of inequality and discrimination in education, public accommodations, employment and housing,” he said.
“Look at black folks today. We’ve made progress. Is this a perfect country? No. But look around Birmingham. Black people can live anywhere, work anywhere.”
Thomas attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., after growing up impoverished in southern Georgia. Now, he owns several hotel and fast-food restaurant franchises in the Atlanta area. Continuing to tell his story is his mission since that bus incident in 1961.
They say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
In Hank Thomas’ case, that is true.