With a bandanna pulled over her face ready to cause a “ruckus and throw rocks” at an anti-Ku Klux Klan protest, Keshia Thomas did the unthinkable.
With a bandanna pulled over her face ready to cause a “ruckus and throw rocks” at an anti-Ku Klux Klan protest in Ann Arbor, Mich., 18-year-old Keshia Thomas did the unthinkable that day.
When a Klansman was spotted in the crowd, protesters retaliated by chasing him, kicking him and beating him with sticks. Appalled by the violence, Thomas threw herself on top of the stranger to protect him until police arrived.
“It felt like two angels lifted my body up and laid me down,” she exclaimed to the audience. “I never felt more sure than what I was supposed to do in that moment. I knew it was an injustice to beat this man.”
On March 7, 350 people at Temple Sholom in Broomall heard Thomas share her life-changing story and her message of why it’s important to stand up for oneself.
Thomas, 38, an international human rights activist, has spread her message across the globe, continuing to work for racial justice and equality. She participated in the NAACP Journey for Justice March in August 2015, which is where she met Temple Sholom Rabbi Peter Rigler.
The march spanned 46 days and 1,002 miles, and the rabbi stepped in for a day and a half. In that short time frame, Thomas’ personality left a strong, lasting impression; she even carried a Torah with him.
“She is one of those people who is out there on the frontlines making the world a better place,” Rigler said. “While some of us rabbis and others talk about how to do it, Keshia is doing it day by day. Keshia is not just about an episode in her life, but it’s a way of life. It’s a way of treating people and a way of embracing people.”
Thomas recalled that day at the anti-KKK protest, remembering feet stomping on head of the Klansman. Although she opposes the KKK’s ideals, she knows violence is not the answer.
She feels she did not just save the Klansman, she added, but also the people who assaulted him. They could have been arrested and charged with felonies, which would have remained on their permanent records, she stressed.
“You cannot kill someone for an idea and you cannot change someone’s mind by using violence,” she said. “You don’t stop this action with hatred, you stop it with compassion.”
After getting off the Klansman and going back to the protest, she observed policemen “giving the business,” meaning excessive force, to an African American.
Contrary to her anti-violence persona, she pushed the cops. Although she feared the repercussions, she knew what they were doing was unjust.
Quickly, her mind raced to thoughts of being charged and going to jail. Surprisingly, she was not shot or arrested, but maced, which caused her to run to the nearest house in search of water. (Unfortunately, she learned water and mace don’t mix.)
From this story, she stressed to the audience, especially the kids, that she hopes she is never in a position that she would have to do that again, but she would if she had to.
News about her actions spread across the country. She began to receive letters, some even from members of the Aryan Brotherhood in prison praising her. Her parents, friends and teachers were not surprised either.
The Klansman never thanked her, but one day while at a coffee shop, a man came up to her and said, “I want to say thanks, and she replied, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘That was my dad.’”
She explained there is nothing wrong with civil disobedience and standing up for what is right. Leading a protest or a rally, blocking a street or peacefully speaking one’s mind is important.
Although her parents and grandparents grew up in Detroit, where they faced “true racism” – segregated bathrooms and restaurants – Thomas still believes most people are inherently good.
“We are more advanced than that, we are not animals,” she shouted. “I don’t want kids out there in a situation where they are going to get hurt. There are more good people in this world than there ever will be bad.”
Thomas speaks at functions throughout the country, and she has helped with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, battered women and with the recovery at Ground Zero in Manhattan.
She emphasized that even with the unwarranted excessive force used by police in the recent deaths of Sandra Bland in Texas, Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., she still stays positive.
“If all policemen were bad, then when I get in trouble 911 wouldn’t be the first number I call,” she said. “Doing something nice is not a sign of weakness.”
She challenged the attendees to avoid social media and television for a week to see how different they view the world afterward.
Hebrew school students Sofia Isayev and Erica Watson, both 15 from Havertown, were blown away by her actions. They both agreed that Thomas inspired them to make a difference in society, though they admitted they are not sure if they would have jumped on the Klansman like she did.
“I want to go out and change the world, even if it is just a small part of it,” Isayev said.
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