A remarkable moment 21 years ago lives on in the volunteer work of Keshia Thomas, a Houston woman who is helping with Hurricane Harvey relief.
Now 39 and consumed with rescuing and feeding victims of catastrophic flooding, Thomas was 18 and living in Ann Arbor, Mich., when it happened.
She had decided to attend an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally one June day.
The 17 Klan members were met by about 200 counterprotesters. One of them saw a man wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and a twin lightning bolt tattoo on his shoulder, said Mark Brunner, who photographed the ensuing confrontation, in a recent interview.
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Someone in the crowd with a bullhorn said, “There’s a Klansman, get him,” Brunner said.
The crowd was chasing the man and Thomas said she was running after him too, hoping to find out why he had come to the counterrally. Someone said, “Kill the Nazi,” Brunner said.
“It was quite intense,” he said. “There was a mob mentality. There were a few guys who came to fight, but there were others, I think, who just got caught up, lost.”
Protesters began to kick the man and hit him with their signs.
Then Thomas, who is African-American, flung her body across the man’s. When protesters prodded him with their sticks and tried to kick him in the face, they hit her.
Thomas said she still doesn’t remember making a conscious choice to shield a man who appeared to be a Klansman.
“It was like two angels had lifted me up by the arms and laid me down,” she said.
Some of the protesters tried to pull Thomas away so they could get at the man, but they were only partially successful.
“She helped someone who probably would not have helped her had their situations been reversed,” Brunner said.
Thomas remembers sprawling between the stranger and the angry mob, frantically waving her arms as she warded off the blows meant for him.
“Once I did that, it changed the atmosphere,” Thomas said. “Once I came in, people in the crowd started pulling hands off me, protecting me and pushed the crowd back.”
Brunner said, “I expected to photograph violence and instead I photographed a rare act of compassion.”
The photo of Thomas ushering the unknown man to safety was seen worldwide. It resonated with people for different reasons. Some loved her for what she did. Others insisted she should have let him die.
“She put aside whatever that man represented and said that’s someone’s son, that’s someone’s father. He was a human being,” Brunner said. ‘I think we would all like to be a little like that.”
Activist came early
Thomas said her activism began in junior high when she lived in California, leading a student demonstration in protest of the Rodney King beating. When Thomas is not reaching out to those in need today, she makes her living as a public speaker.
Her current focus is making sure the victims of Hurricane Harvey survive until their neighborhoods are rebuilt.
She is working with Greenhouse International Church in Houston to find underwear, socks, food, water, baby formula, toiletries and other essentials for victims.
“Everybody has become an activist,” Thomas said. “It’s in the worst of times, that’s when you see the best of humanity.”
Thomas also has channeled her activism is by picking up those in Houston who were displaced by Harvey. She used random vehicles — tractor-trailer rig, a dually truck, a fire truck —whatever she could get her hands on that would get her through the flooded streets, said Green House International Church pastor, E.A. Deckard.
She collected food and other essentials for those she had plucked from the streets and others who were in need, Deckard said.
“Her first step was to rescue people and her next step was to feed people,” Deckard said.
Thomas has been instrumental in setting up the church’s relief center, Deckard said. But she never mentioned her activist beginnings in Ann Arbor.
“When I first met her I did not know about it because she never said anything about it,” Deckard said. “I asked her why she didn’t talk about it and she said because it didn’t matter. She’s just a humble person.”
People may have moved on from the crisis in Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, but the struggle continues, Thomas said. Parts of Houston remain underwater, while some residents are gathering the parts of their ruined homes and placing them on the curb for trash pickup, she said.
“Now is the time to show what you’re made of,” she said. “Right now you have an option to help or watch on TV. There are a lot of things that you can do. You can send food, you can be an inspiration or you can be an ear. Find a way to help and bring your best attitude.”
Thomas said she never communicated with the man she saved from a beating, or worse. She said that, according to the stranger’s son, he recently died.
North Texas Giving Day
The charities helping with Hurricane Harvey relief and other work through the Communities Foundation of Texas are focused on providing mid- to long-term relief for North Texans as well as for those who have evacuated since Hurricane Harvey. This is the ninth year that volunteers have solicited donations for North Texas Giving Day, which begins Thursday.
“We see that people are good at funding immediate relief but some people will need help for months and years to come,” said Carol Goglia, CFT senior director of marketing and communications. “We try to understand the needs once that immediate relief phase has passed.”
North Texas Giving Day is the region’s annual 18-hour online giving push aimed at benefiting 16 counties of North Texas. During the past eight years, the event has raised more than $156 million for local charitable organizations and last year, more than $37 million was raised benefiting more than 2,500 nonprofits.
Go here to give to North Texas Giving Day online.