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.

Hank Thomas, now and in 1961
Hank Thomas, now and in 1961 National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers; Courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art

HT: It was once again the escalation of the battle. We won the two battles in reference to the [sit-ins] and the Freedom Rides. So all of these are battles that are being won, and all culminating in the ultimate. At the time, we didn’t have the historical perspective for being able to see beyond what we were doing and the effect it was going to have. We were building the momentum, certainly in 1964 after the Freedom Rides and the rebellions of the summer.

TR: As you were heavily involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other activist groups, to what extent did you work toward equal voting rights? 

HT: I had to leave Birmingham early because I was down there doing something that got me declared outlawed by the state of Alabama. I was trying to educate black people on the rules and everything, to learn the truth about registering to vote. Bull Connor knew that registering folks to vote was something that was definitely against their best interest. I knew how important the vote was. And I just hope that black people do not take it for granted today because the price for them to be able to vote was paid with blood.

TR: When the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act last summer, it put many people’s voting rights at risk. Do you think there has been a downplaying of racial inequality when it comes to government legislation?

HT: The main purpose of the voter-ID laws is to make sure we hold down the voting numbers of both African Americans and Hispanics. This isn’t about something that’s just. It’s about power. They want to make sure that black people—a black person never gets to the White House again. That’s the whole purpose of it.

You have got to fight and go out and register people and encourage people to go back to the polls, and have hopefully the same numbers as when we went to the polls to elect President Obama. So the fight continues in that regard.

Taryn Finley is a summer intern at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.