Hank Thomas’ dream would find him debating, at the age of 19, how he preferred to die — in a burning bus or at the hands of the angry mobs outside who set it ablaze. It would see him beaten for failing to address a police officer as “sir,” and it would land him in the darkness of solitary confinement at Parchman State Prison Farm.
But it wouldn’t find Thomas, one of the original Civil Rights-era Freedom Riders, sorry for any of it.
“No regrets, ever,” he told a capacity crowd Wednesday at UW-Green Bay. “What I did was part of my DNA.”
Thomas, 70, has been fighting for justice and equality for more than five decades. At age 19, he boarded an integrated bus, bound for the Deep South, to protest segregation laws. He would later be arrested, imprisoned, and have his life threatened too many times to count. But Thomas would remain undeterred, using non-violent resistance and a steely resolve to fight injustice wherever it lived.
“When I boarded that bus, 50 years ago, 1961, I was in search of my American dream, that elusive American dream,” Thomas said, “the dream whose preamble states that all men — that we hold these truths as self-evident that all men are created with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“And 50 years later, my dream of old has not been tarnished. It’s lost neither tone nor tint. And it still stands a-glimmering, through the veils of yesteryear.”
Thomas’ address, part of UW-Green Bay’s long-running Historical Perspectives Lecture Series, also served as the keynote event for Black History Month at the University. It began with the showing of a 15-minute segment of the PBS documentary, “Freedom Riders,” which features Thomas. The man himself then was welcomed with a standing ovation, standing in front of a capacity crowd that well exceeded 200 people. Students from a Green Bay high school held a hand-made sign that read simply, “Thank you, Mr. Thomas.”
During his speech and the audience Q & A that followed, Thomas covered topics that included his own unfathomable experiences, the progress that has been made and the challenges of racism that still exist today. He lauded racial reconciliation efforts that have taken place in Mississippi, once a hotbed of segregation and racial violence, and said states further north could learn from those initiatives.
“The problem is in the north now,” Thomas said. “And the question is, are you prepared to look in the mirror and deal with it?”
Part of the issue, Thomas said, is awareness. During his visit to campus — the evening keynote and an earlier event with faculty and staff — he implored his audiences to see the 2012 movie “Red Tails,” which tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. The movie illuminates the contributions made by African Americans during the war, said Thomas, himself a Vietnam veteran, offering an often-unseen but critically important look at American history. He also urged parents to lead for their children.
“Prejudice has to be learned,” Thomas said. “So set a good example for them.”
Thomas’ words resonated with the capacity crowd, and many attendees were moved to tears as he concluded his address. The Freedom Rider was in the spring of his life when he first boarded that famous bus, he said, and is now in the autumn of his existence.
“Of the 13 original Freedom Riders, only four of us are still alive today,” he said. “I have been to many wakes, and I have raised my glasses to their memories. For memories are all that I have left of them now. And memories, they don’t leave like people do. They always stay with you.”
As does their legacy.
“And to you I say of the Freedom Riders,” Thomas concluded his address, “we saw something wrong, and we decided to do something about it.”
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– Photos by Kimberly Vlies, Office of Marketing and University Communication