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Hank Thomas: My First Arrest

Hank Thomas

Like several black Freedom Riders who grew up in the south, Hank Thomas began protesting the status quo as a child. “Rebellion came natural to me,” he says in Breach of Peace, and goes to recount his earliest efforts, growing up in St. Augustine, FL.

At around 9 or 10 he corrected the white insurance man who came calling on his aunt but addressed her only by her first name, not last. Later, because blacks were not allowed in the public library, Thomas would take his own books there and read for about an hour or so. He sat in the white seats on city buses, and, during the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, suggested to the local ministers that they attempt something similar in St. Augustine. They declined.

Thomas was freshman at Howard University, in Washington, DC, when the sit-in movement erupted in Greensboro, NC, in February 1960, and he no longer needed anyone’s permission to take action:

Greensboro was the spark. We were all talking about it, discussing it. At Howard it took us maybe two to three weeks to get organized and go in on our first demonstration in Maryland and in Virginia. Segregation in DC was mostly not too bad, but then north in Maryland and south in Virginia, you’re back in the old South again.

My first arrest came in the Hyattsville, MD. There’s a movie theater there that, of course, we could not go in. And we went there to buy tickets, prearranging we wouldn’t move out of the way for other people to buy tickets. That’s when I was arrested. That was the beginning.

We called ourselves the weekend warriors. We’d go over to Maryland or Virginia, then in between we were picketing either the White House or Congress. The first picket line I ever walked was picketing Congress.

Eisenhower went down to Augusta quite often, and I didn’t know anything about Augusta or the implication. Of course, it was a segregated facility. But we thought that he should’ve been in Washington attending to big issues with reference to race, not out there playing golf.

When we picketed the White House, my sign said, “Civil Rights, Ike. One more hole to go.” [Laughs.] I’m not the author. I looked at it and said, “I’ll take that one. I like that.” [Laughs.] I can’t remember what was on my sign when I marched in front of the Capitol. That was a heady experience.

In the spring of 1961, Thomas’ roommate at Howard was chosen to be one of the 13 Freedom Riders leaving from Washington on May 4. When his roommate couldn’t go, Thomas replaced him.

My roommate John Moody had been accepted as a Freedom Rider, and at the last minute, he couldn’t go. I don’t know whether it was for illness on his part or some illness in his family. It was too late for them to start interviewing around for someone else, and he suggested, “Well, why don’t you take my roommate?” They looked at my age, and they wanted somebody 21 or over. When I went to see them, I’m a big tall fella so I looked big for my age. [Laughs.] But I still say that they just didn’t have time to talk to anyone else so that’s how I got selected. [Laughs.]

I always wanted to go where the action was. That’s what happens when you’re 19. You don’t think too much about what the consequences gonna be.

Within a few days, Thomas found the action, stepping off the bus into a Rock Hill, SC, crowd that had just attacked fellow Rider John Lewis. Then, on Mother’s Day, May 14, Thomas was on the bus that was chased down by a mob outside Anniston, AL, and firebombed. Ten days later, on May 24, he was riding the second bus into Jackson.


hank thomas is my uncle and i thank him for being apart of the foundation the lead to change hints our first black president kudos

Posted by amanda singleton on 18 December 2008 @ 1am

Hank, thank you for what you did for Black people and ALL of us!

Posted by Homer "ABE" S. Sewell III on 28 December 2010 @ 9pm

Mr Thomas,you are a remarkable man & a true hero.

Posted by Glenn on 26 May 2011 @ 9am

Thank you Hank.

Posted by sam 72 on 31 May 2011 @ 4pm

Like all true Warriors of the Heart, your courageous actions have paved the way so that others can progress more fully into a Brighter and Peaceful Future for ALL ~
Thank U for Being U ~!

Posted by Elle on 1 June 2011 @ 8pm

I agree, you are an american hero.

Posted by Adam on 31 July 2011 @ 5pm