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Activist to recall her role in unlikely rescue
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Activist to recall her role in unlikely rescue

In 1996, 18-year-old Keshia Thomas instinctively acted to save a man from violence — even though she believed he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Thomas, inset, said it was a matter “of accepting who I am and acting on my principles.” &
In 1996, 18-year-old Keshia Thomas instinctively acted to save a man from violence — even though she believed he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Thomas, inset, said it was a matter “of accepting who I am and acting on my principles.” &

In June, it will be 20 years since Keshia Thomas committed a random act of kindness that altered her life forever — for the better, she would tell you.

What Thomas did was to get between a man who had fallen and a crowd of angry people trying to kick him and beat him with sticks. The man Thomas chose to protect was thought to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Thomas is African-American. 

This Friday, March 11, she will talk about the experience at Shabbat services at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls.

Thomas acknowledged in a phone interview that it might be hard to understand why she, as an 18-year-old high school student in Ann Arbor, Mich., was willing to expose herself to harm while trying to defend someone whose views she considered hateful and wrong.

“Although instinct may have played a part, it was more a matter of accepting who I am and acting on my principles,” she told NJJN.

A believer in social justice and nonviolence, Thomas as a teen already had a history of being an activist. “My first involvement with civil disobedience was in junior high, when I organized a one-day school walkout to protest acquittals [in 1992] of the Los Angeles police officers who beat up Rodney King,” she said.

As an adult, she did volunteer work in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, at Ground Zero in New York City, supporting wildfire firefighters in California, and making service visits to Haiti. 

In Ann Arbor in June 1996, Thomas was on the scene as part of a group protesting a KKK rally. Feelings were running high, she recalled, and when someone announced that there was a klansman among them, the crowd turned hostile. The man, who had a Nazi SS tattoo and wore a T-shirt depicting the Confederate flag, began to run, but was knocked down.

Thomas said that when a defenseless person is being beaten, the issue transcends politics. She made a shield of her own body. “You can’t beat goodness into a person,” she was heard to say.

In the aftermath of the incident, which was captured in a dramatic photograph by Life magazine’s Mark Brunner, Thomas was invited to do interviews with journalists and appear on television programs.

“I kept telling myself to beware of being enamored of fame,” Thomas said.

After attending the University of Michigan, she became a paralegal, continued her volunteer activities and public speaking, and is now about to start a new business in her native Detroit. 

“I’ll be training and assisting people in starting and running a small business, such as a day care center, home healthcare service, lawn maintenance operation, and so on,” she said.

Thomas’s topic at Monmouth Reform Temple will be “The Power of One.” “One person can indeed change the world,” she said, but only if he or she is willing to take action. “We can’t just stand by and look the other way when injustice is occurring. We must act.”

MRT’s Rabbi Marc Kline said he invited Thomas to speak at the synagogue after he met her last summer while participating in America’s Journey for Justice, a six-week, 860-mile trek from Selma, Ala., to Washington, DC.

He said meeting Thomas brought “new light” into his own justice work. He added, “Every time we are intentionally kind is monumental.”

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