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CNN SATURDAY MORNING NEWS

Freedom Rider Remembers Horrors of Trip

Aired May 12, 2001 - 09:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: It was 40 years ago when a group of 13 people came together to test a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate buses and trains. It was the Freedom Rides of 1961, and a journey greeted by angry mobs. The original Freedom Riders are now retracing part of that original trip from Washington to New Orleans, and today remembrance -- their remembrance, rather, will end in Alabama.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hank Thomas is one of the original Freedom Riders. He remembers the horrors of that trip for CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HANK THOMAS, FREEDOM RIDER: I wasn't supposed to go. I was only 19. My roommate at the time, John Moody, had signed up to go, had taken all of the training, and he was set to go. And I think at the last minute, he became ill.

Winnsboro, South Carolina. Congressman Lewis got off the bus to go in to use the white facilities. And soon as he got off the bus, he was attacked by a mob that was already waiting there. And went I went into the waiting room, I went into the rest room, I was almost relieved when they came in to arrest me.

Very late that night, two police officers came to get me out of the cell, not saying a single word to me. They said, "You wanted to leave? Well, we're going to take you to the bus station so you can leave." We turned the corner to the bus station. All of the lights were out, and a very large crowd was there, 50, 60 guys. I said, "You can't put me out here. These people will beat me up." He put his hand on his gun and he said, "Nigger, get out of this car."

And when I got out, the police burned rubber taking off.

The crowd started coming toward me. They had sticks, maybe bats or stuff like that. And I looked around to find out which direction I'm going to run. At that moment, a car pulled up, a black man was driving. He says, "Son, get in." I jumped in the car. He said, "Get down on the floor and don't move." That man saved my life that night. He took me on to Columbia, South Carolina, and I stayed the night at Benedicts College there. And I rejoined the group later on.

As we drove in to the city of Anniston, all of the streets were deserted. And didn't take us long to get to the bus station. And we turned the corner to the bus station, nothing but a crowd of men all over the station, yelling and screaming. And when we pulled in, they surrounded the bus. Unbeknownst to us, the tires of the bus had been slashed. The bus driver pulled over. At the place where he pulled over, a large crowd of people had gathered, and they started to rock the bus, as much as you could rock a Greyhound bus.

An incendiary device was either thrown or shot aboard the bus in the back. And immediately the bus started burning.

Well, the crowd then held the door. And I could hear, "Let's burn them niggers alive." The thing that saved us was, one of the fuel tanks on the bus exploded, and when that tank exploded, it blew out the back of the bus, and everybody in the crowd ran.

Finally got off, and maybe a few feet away from the door, guy came up to me, and he asked me, said, "You all right, boy?" And I'm just thinking, Well, you know, somebody just concerned about me, and I just nodded my head and said, "Yes." And he hit me with a baseball bat.

As any warrior gets older, he slows down physically. And he stops to kind of smell the roses. Obviously, they will never have to go through any of the things that I went through as an African- American, as a black person in this country.

And I am very proud, only lately, I can bask in the fact that I had a small part to play in changing this country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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