It has been an eventful year for Talladega College Board of Trustee member Henry "Hank" Thomas as he relives what he did at the tender age of 19 before national audiences. Often when Mr. Thomas, an original and National Spokesperson for the Freedom Riders, is asked why he got on the bus, he replies, "We saw something wrong and we decided to do something about it."
Trustee Thomas dazzled the Talladega College Commencement audience with this statement and other kind words in appreciation of his standing ovation when he received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from TC during the College's 136th Commencement Exercises May 1st. TC President, Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, asked the audience to stand and celebrate this commendable man who he called, "a veteran civil rights foot soldier, who changed history and made it possible for all of us to be here today."
But the accolades didn't begin or stop there. Mr. Thomas was honored as an American Hero by Oprah Winfrey during The Oprah's Tribute to Freedom Riders' show on May 4th. During the show, Oprah aired an emotional reunion. Trustee Thomas always wondered what had become of the brave 12 year-old girl that defied the clenches of the Ku Klux Klan and delivered water to the bombed, injured, smoke-inhaled Freedom Riders when they arrived in Anniston, Alabama. Janie Forsyth McKinney appeared on the show and reached out to hug the grateful arms of the now towering, powerful, deep-voiced yet gentle soul, Hank Thomas. Janie's kind act of helping black and white injured strangers could have cost her life and the safety of her entire family. But, it was dismissed by the Klan at the time because of her age.
Trustee Thomas appeared on the show along with 177 survivors from the Freedom Rides. 2011 is the golden year, 50th celebration of the Freedom Rides that began in Washington, DC in May 1961 and culminated in the desegregation of interstate bus and train travel in the United States. The movement had encompassed the efforts of whites, blacks, Jews, Protestants, and ordinary every day citizens that risked their lives to defy the status quo.
He has received many accolades for his bravery by participating in this historic event 50 years ago that changed the lives of most Americans. Last Sunday, The Washington Post, Washington D.C.'s oldest newspaper, featured Trustee Thomas on the front page. In March 2011, a resolution honoring Thomas was presented to him by Mississippi State Senator John Hohrn at the capitol in Jackson for his unwavering spirit and toil during the Freedom Rides.
The city of Anniston, Alabama hosted a jam-packed series of events on May 12-14 in honor of the 50th Anniversary where Mr. Thomas was the keynote speaker. He is one of the two existing survivors of the Greyhound Bus that was attacked in Anniston. The Anniston Star produced a commemorative piece in their paper entitled "The Ride," which depicts photographs, interviews, and a listing of events that were held in commemoration of the Anniston bus attack 50 years ago. In The Ride, Hank Thomas' quote is printed beside a beautiful picture of the Freedom Riders Anniston historic marker. "The civil rights movement was all about removing the Jim Crow laws that would cause people to want to kill me for wanting to sit on the front seat of a bus. Our sole function was to change these kinds of things. Well, we did." PBS also featured "The Freedom Riders, an American Experience," a documentary which aired on Monday night.
The Freedom Riders museum will be dedicated on Friday in Montgomery this week. TC President, Dr. Billy C. Hawkins will be attending the Anniversary celebrations in Montgomery with Trustee Thomas. Dr. Hawkins will also attend the closing celebrations in Jackson, Mississippi with Thomas at the end of the month.
Over the course of his civil rights labor, Mr. Thomas was arrested 22 times. That fateful day during the bombing in Anniston, he endured the Ku Klux Klan attack along with the other riders and suffered smoke inhalation to the point he thought he would die in his fight for freedom. Though 19, and a college student at Howard University, his works landed him in Parchman prison in Mississippi along with many others who were fed up with the injustices of that time. Thomas was once sentenced to six (6) months in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for treason against the state for using a "whites only" men's room in Jackson Mississippi.
In addition to being a Talladega College Board Trustee, Mr. Thomas is the president of Victoria Hospitality Properties, Inc., a company that operates three (3) Marriott Branded Hotels. He is also the Vice President of the Hayon, Inc. Group which has owned and operated three (3) McDonald's Restaurants since 1982. Thomas is also a Vietnam War veteran and he received a Purple Heart honor for the gun-shot wounds he received during an ambushment in 1966 that caused him a five month plus hospital stay for recovery. He lovingly refers to the Riders and himself 50 years later as the "bald eagles," in contrast to when they were young, had hair and called themselves "the eagles." Hank Thomas is married, has 2 children and 5 grandchildren. Talladega College is proud to celebrate the accomplishments of our esteemed Trustee as he represents the Freedom Riders as their national spokesperson.