Record Staff Writer
Freedom Rider Hank Thomas remembers thinking he was going to die on a bus that was fire bombed by a mob in Alabama 50 years ago.
Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders and a St. Augustine native, recounted the details of his civil rights protesting days as a young adult in the 1960s at the unveiling of the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers monument in the Plaza de la Constitucion on Saturday evening.
“Today is the anniversary of that bus burning,” Thomas said to a group of hundreds that gathered under the Old Market pavilion in downtown St. Augustine. “I thought I was going to die at 19 years old.”
Freedom Riders traveled through Southern cities by bus to fight for the right of African-Americans to travel across state lines on trains and buses while using the same seats, bathrooms, water fountains and other facilities as whites.
Thomas and several others were trapped inside a bus while a mob fire bombed the bus and held the doors closed. That event in May 1961 is one of many violent acts Thomas saw or was apart of as a protester.
Civil rights protesters like Thomas and Dr. Robert Hayling, who alongside Martin Luther King Jr., played a major role in helping young African-Americans rally against segregation in St. Augustine, spoke at the unveiling ceremony.
Longtime Lincolnville resident, 88-year-old Barbara Vickers sparked an interest in 2004 of creating a memorial for civil rights activists in St. Augustine. A board of directors was formed, which included Cathy Brown, the executive director at the Council on Aging, and former city of St. Augustine mayor George Gardner. From that, the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Remembrance Project was born.
City and county officials, among many others, watched as Vickers and others pulled down a black sheet the hung over the new bronze sculpture in the Plaza. Four head busts represent the many Foot Soldiers who were arrested, threatened and just fought for equal rights in St. Augustine.
Carolyn Fisher led the audience, packed tightly under the cover of the market to keep out of the rain, in song. Together they sang “the Freedom Song,” “This little light of Mine,” and many others.
Ms. Carrie Johnson, known as the “Voice of Lincolnville,” led the group in song as she rode up to the Plaza on her well-known purple tricycle, her straw hat with a purple sash tucked underneath a bright yellow raincoat.
“In the words of Errol Jones, ‘Let the healing continue,'” said St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles.