The following post originally appeared on The Root under the title of “An Original Freedom Rider Reflects on the Struggle.” It tells the story of Hank Thomas, a civil rights activist who shares his experiences with the 1961 Freedom Rides. 

By: Taryn Finley

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 Ridesto 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 Roothis 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.]

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