History of a journey: Civil rights pioneer shares moving message

Video: Freedom Rider Hank ThomasA civil rights pioneer moved a UW-Green Bay audience with his message of challenge and hope Feb. 15, as he spoke about facing prison and death as a young man determined to make a difference.

But Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders, also spoke of hope for the future, the promise of reconciliation — and the kind of steely resolve that’s kept him fighting for justice and equality for more than 50 years.

“When I first got on the bus, I had no idea of the kind of danger that we would be in,” Thomas said. “… I thought it would be simply an extension of what I was doing in terms of sitting in. I had no idea of the kind of violence that would occur.”

Yet Thomas would face that violence — and imprisonment — again and again. The integrated bus he rode into the Deep South would be firebombed. He would be beaten, threatened and placed in solitary confinement for taking a stand.

“People were asking me, ‘haven’t you had enough? Are you crazy?’ ” Thomas said. “I said, ‘no I’ve got to see this thing through.’ ”

See it through he did, Thomas told the UW-Green Bay audience, many of whom were moved to tears by his address. One of just four of the original 13 Freedom Riders who are still living, Thomas last year celebrated five decades since the groundbreaking rides — and the progress that’s been made. He also reflected on what still needs to be done.

“We all are aware, of course, of what has happened, and how the country has changed,” he said. “But one of the areas that I’d like to see greater change (in) is the relationships between blacks and whites, whether it’s in the South or the North. When we went back last year for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Ride, we called it a journey of reconciliation.”

That reconciliation needs to happen not just in the South, but everywhere, Thomas said. Frustration and anger may accompany the journey, but it will be worth it in the end.

“People ask me, do ever I get angry?” Thomas said. “Yes, I do. I do get angry about what happened. But I was able to re-channel that anger. Living well is always the best revenge.”

Click here to also see a photo gallery from the Feb. 15 event.