Fifty years ago, Hank Thomas entered Parchman prison as a Freedom Rider. I highlighted this distressing chapter of the Mississippi civil rights struggle in a post designed to establish historical context for the Curtis Flowers case. Recently, I shared a personal encounter with Parchman when I unsuccessfully attempted to visit Curtis Flowers. Last week, Hank Thomas was greeted with smiles and handshakes; in 1961 he was welcomed to Parchman by sneering guards.
Reilly Morse, a senior attorney and a founding staff member in the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Center for Justice, has shared his reflections on Hank Thomas’s return to the notorious plantation prison. Hank’s personal account is pasted below. Both articles appear in the most recent edition of Facing South, a publication of the Institute for Southern Studies.
By Hank Thomas
On Sunday, October 10, I took a bus trip to Parchman Prison in the Mississippi Delta. The Mississippi Center for Justice had arranged this trip and invited me to revisit the place I was locked up in the summer of 1961, charged with disturbing the peace of Mississippi. I was a Freedom Rider, you see.
My visit to Parchman was part of a larger two-day tour of the Delta, which included stops in Ruleville, the home of Fannie Lou Hamer, and Money, the place where in 1955 Emmett Till had his fateful encounter with a white woman, which led to his lynching.
Shortly after our tour began on Saturday, some folks on the bus asked me my feelings about going back to Parchman after 49 years. I had been expecting this. I could easily recall ealier times when I had been asked the same question.
In 1993 I was one of three GI’s going back to Vietnam to meet North Vietnamese veterans, a reconciliation meeting of former enemy combatants. As our plane descended toward the Hanoi airport, my wife asked me how I felt about coming face to face with comrades of the men who’d shot me.
In addition to Vietnam, I had also been back to Anniston, Alabama, a place where as a Freedom Rider I had come face to face with the second lynch mob I’d ever encountered.
So as far as I was concerned, I was used to “going back.” I had done it before. I thought I would be hard and emotionally detached.
I was wrong.
Once we got to Money, things started to happen within me. We’d stopped at the general store, now abandoned, where Till had whistled, or not, at a white woman. As our tour guide retold the now familiar story of the 14-year-old’s lynching, a childhood memory started to run through my mind. A few people noticed a visible change in me. When we re-boarded the bus, they asked me to talk about it.
I took the bus mike and began: “I am Emmett Till.”
“He and I were the same age. In 1955, I lived in rural Georgia and that could have been me. At the age of 8 I accidentally brushed up against a white woman in the narrow aisles of our local grocery. Regardless of age, you see, black boys were never to touch a white woman. When my mother learned what I had done, she immediately fell on her knees and began praying for me and asking forgiveness.”
About an hour later, as we neared Parchman, Money was still on my mind. I could sense that once again all eyes in the bus were on me, trying to detect some visceral sign of emotion.
When we arrived at the prison entrance, the superintendent, a white man who appeared to be in his late 40s, boarded the bus and said, “Welcome to Parchman.”
This greeting was very unlike my first visit, the words form which still vibrate against my skull: “Y’all think y’all important. We goin’ ta straight’n y’all out.”
Today the superintendent shook my hand and asked me if I’d consent to being photographed with him and autograph his copy of Eric Etheridge’s book Breach of Peace.
We were shown the maximum-security building where I had served my sentence in 1961. Unit 17 also housed the gas chamber. As we walked the cellblock, I discovered that my cell was only 50 feet from the execution chamber.
I am writing this essay only 24 hours after my visit to Parchman. Seeing the proximity of my cell to the gas chamber has had more psychological effect on me than the 1966 ambush in Vietnam when I was shot. I had to step away from the group to collect myself.
At the end of our visit, the superintendent thanked me for coming and invited me to bring my family with me the next time I come back. My life has had a few ironies, but none more memorable than this. Being welcomed back to Parchman by the superintendent and treated as something of a celebrity was a surreal experience.
The mood was solemn as we left Parchman. I could imagine how Nelson Mandela felt going back to Robben Island or how a Jew felt returning to Germany in 2005.
As we drove away, I had lots of time for reflection. The Mississippi Delta is a flat, almost featureless landscape. My early childhood in rural Georgia was spent chopping and picking cotton. School for black children did not start until October — after the crops had been brought in. I remember the harshness of life in Jefferson County. I remember the daily humiliation black adults suffered. I remember the KKK.
I also thought about Rock Hill, South Carolina. There in 1961 I encountered my first lynch mob. My fellow Rider, now Congressman, John Lewis and I had been arrested as we tried to integrate the bus station there. Much later that night, two policemen took me from my cell and carried me back to the station, now closed, where a Klan mob was waiting. I narrowly escaped when a local minister, a very brave African-American World War II veteran, pulled up beside me in his car.
“Son, jump in and get down on the floor,” he shouted. “Do not raise your head.” I remained on the floorboard of his car all the way to Columbia.
The present day police chief in Rock Hill is John Gregory III, an African-American. I am looking forward to going back to Rock Hill next year.
These and many other thoughts flooded my mind as the flat lands of the Delta flashed by the bus window.
My wife and I have been successful. We’ve obtained that elusive American dream. We live a comfortable life. Looking back over all that I’ve endured and my people have endured, I am saddened and conflicted. Yes, I was arrested 22 times for demanding my human rights. I narrowly escaped two lynch mobs. I was beaten five times by the police for not addressing them as “sir.” I was drafted and shipped to Vietnam to fight for . . . rights that I did not enjoy in my own country. Is there any wonder that sometimes I just wanna holler?
And then I think about the gains from our struggle: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, laws mandating fair housing and equal employment. And President Barack Obama in the White House
I wouldn’t take nutin’ for the journey.
Hank Thomas, Freedom Rider