An Original Freedom Rider Reflects on the Struggle

Civil rights activist Hank Thomas gives his insight on the impact of the 1961 Freedom Rides and how they helped shape Freedom Summer of 1964.

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Hank Thomas, now and in 1961

National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers; Courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art

In 1961, 19-year-old Howard University student Hank Thomas embarked on a journey that would change interstate travel forever and inspire the birth of other movements. Thomas made a quick decision to join the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Rides to travel from Washington, D.C., to the Deep South with several other young African Americans and whites.

The U.S. Supreme Court had struck down racial segregation on interstate buses in 1946 and expanded that decision in 1960 by outlawing segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters and restroom facilities for interstate passengers. However, both rulings were largely ignored in the Deep South. Freedom Riders risked their lives by traveling on buses through the South and, by doing so, challenged the federal government to enforce the law. Freedom Riders were beaten, lynched and arrested for the sake of justice. Thomas’ experience as a Freedom Rider was no exception.

Being a Freedom Rider isn’t Thomas’ only claim to fame, however, and his rebellious spirit isn’t by happenstance. The great-great-great-grandson of an outspoken slave, Thomas also played a part in working toward Freedom Summer’s goal of registering black people to vote in 1964.

Thomas, now retired at 73, owns two Marriott hotels and lives in Atlanta. He recounted to The Root his experiences as a Freedom Rider, the importance of remembering significant events like Freedom Summer and what black people should be doing to build upon progress already made.

The Root: It was a last-minute decision for you to join the Freedom Ride after your roommate couldn’t do it because of illness. What were your thoughts when you decided to undertake such a huge endeavor?

Hank Thomas: I saw it as just another one of the things I had been doing in terms of sitting in, marching, protesting and going to jail. I had absolutely no concept of how big this thing would be and neither did I know how dangerous it would be. So when I did get that opportunity, it was like, “Oh, boy! I get to go ride to the beach,” in terms of what I thought it would be like. By accident, I went on the Freedom Ride, and my roommate has never forgiven me. [Laughs.]

TR: You said it would have been easier for you to travel in East Berlin before the destruction of the Berlin Wall than it was to ride on the front seat of a bus through the South. Did you have any idea of the impact that the Freedom Riders would have on interstate travel while you were involved?

HT: I knew what our goal was. It was indeed to get the law that had been affirmed by the Supreme Court: that racial discrimination in interstate transportation was unconstitutional. But the reason we did the ride, and the way we did it, was to virtually force the federal government to enforce those laws. None of the Southern states abided by the laws.

We knew that eventually we would force the federal government to act, and we did. But what I did not realize at the time was the reaching effect of what this would do. Little did we really realize that this was just one of the battles to what would be the ultimate victory—in President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 civil rights bill.

TR: This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. How much of an impact do you believe the Freedom Rides had on its inception?