Civil rights veteran Hank Thomas smiled as he told an audience at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute about “the Anniston Angel” — a 12-year-old girl who brought water to the Freedom Riders after a mob attacked their bus 55 years earlier.
Last month Thomas recounted how he survived the 1961 Anniston bus burning in commemoration of the attack. Janie Forsyth McKinney, “the Anniston Angel,” as Thomas dubbed her, spoke alongside Thomas as they shared their experiences and answered questions as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s summer lecture series.
It was May 14, 1961, when a mob attacked a bus full of Freedom Riders — a group of racially-integrated demonstrators heading into the heart of the segregated South to protest discrimination — as they arrived in Anniston. When the mob realized they could not break into the bus, they hurled a firebomb through the back window.
McKinney described seeing the Freedom Riders’ bus pulling up in front of her father’s store on Mother’s Day of 1961. There had been rumors that the bus was coming to Anniston, and McKinney said she had felt uneasy for several days. She watched as a mob formed around the bus.
When the bus went up in flames, the Freedom Riders were forced to make a decision.
“I knew if I was able to get off of that bus there was a very good possibility I was going to be beaten to death,” Thomas said. “If I stayed on the bus we were going to be incinerated with the bus. So I thought that by breathing in that smoke and taking a big, deep breath that it would put me to sleep and that was how I was going to die. So for all practical purposes at 19, I had decided to commit suicide.”
When the flames reached the gas tank, and the back of the bus exploded, the mob backed away and the Freedom Riders were able to escape the flames. Thomas says that God intervened and saved his life.
McKinney witnessed the crowd retract as the bus exploded. “I said, ‘No. You cannot do this in front of me. I will not allow it.’ And I thought what can I do? What can I do? I felt helpless at that time. And then I heard someone cry for water,” she said.
Not strong enough to carry a full bucket of water, McKinney brought a half-bucket full out to the scene. She began to hand out water to the Freedom Riders who were choking on smoke. One of those Freedom Riders was Thomas.
“[Thomas] didn’t see me approaching right off. He didn’t want to look at me because I think he thought it was somebody about to hit him again. I remember saying ‘Take it! It’s water!’” McKinney said.
After that day, McKinney never wanted to feel helpless again. She went on to earn degrees in secondary education and technical writing. She has almost completed a degree in clinical psychology. She is CPR certified and has been trained to be a first responder. McKinney now lives in California where she says she has a freedom she never felt in Alabama to have “friends of all races and ages and sizes and sexes.”
Thomas says that God sent McKinney to save the Freedom Riders. Nowadays Thomas does not have any hatred toward his attackers. A self-described “eternal optimist,” he said would rather tell the story of the Anniston Angel. “If there was [hatred in my heart], there would be no room for God’s blessings,” he said.
When Thomas joined the Freedom Riders at the age of 19 in 1961, he was not scared. He attributes this to his young age. “Your brain isn’t fully developed,” he said to a laughing crowd. “You have no idea what fear is.” Before becoming a Freedom Rider, Thomas had never been physically attacked. After the Anniston bus burning, Thomas fought in the Vietnam War before going into business.
Thomas says that there is still racism in the United States today, and he tells young people to “get an education, be positive and move ahead.”
Jackson Gibson, a history major at Birmingham-Southern College, attended the event on May 19. “There’s a lot of hatred going on in national politics, and there is still a poverty problem. There’s a problem with racism still in this country,” he said. “And to know what happened in the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement, it would broaden people’s horizons and just give them the context and maybe deter them from sharing that same hatred.”
Despite existing racism, Thomas says that he can justify his optimism. He says that the Civil Rights Movement accomplished everything it set out to accomplish. “We look at black folks today, and we are no longer a poor people. We are a middle-class people today,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to accept the fact that we have made progress.”