Keshia Thomas broke away from a mob to protect a supposed white supremacist in Ann Arbor, Mich., when she was a teenager. Thomas and Mark Brunner, the photographer who captured her courageous actions, recall that day in 1996.
Keshia Thomas spoke with the BBC about the day when 17 KKK members held a rally in mostly liberal Ann Arbor, Mich., in June 1996.
Hundreds of locals had arrived to protest their presence, while police with riot gear and tear gas protected the Klansmen. An 18-year-old Thomas stood with the National Women’s Rights Organizations Coalition protestors behind a purpose-built fence, when someone in the crowd noticed a white man with a Confederate flag T-shirt and an SS tattoo among them.
An 18-year-old Keshia Thomas throws herself onto a supposed Ku Klux Klan member to protect him from angry protesters in June 1996.
In the aftermath of the rally, in which seven people were arrested, Thomas’ actions are being scrutinized and have been described as gallant by some.
A woman with a megaphone shouted her accusation, “There’s a Klansman in the crowd.”
As the man tried to get away, Thomas was among the crowd that gave chase.
He started to run when cries of “Kill the Nazi” rang out, but soon fell to the ground. Protestors began to kick and strike the man with placards.
As the blows continued to rain down, a horrified Thomas threw herself on top of the man to shield him.
The man was attacked when he showed up at a KKK rally with a Confederate flag.
“When people are in a crowd they are more likely to do things they would never do as an individual. Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘This isn’t right,’ “ she said.
Mark Brunner, the photographer who took the incredible shots, was amazed at Thomas’ selflessness.
“She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her,” he said. “Who does that in this world?”
Thomas, who had previously experienced violence, says that the man did not deserve to be attacked.
“Nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”
She has never met the man she protected again, but months later a young man approached her in coffee shop and thanked her. When she asked what he was thanking her for, his reply was simple.
“That was my dad.”
Thomas has not met the man she protected since that day, but has been thanked by his son.