The Teenager Who Saved A Man With An SS Tattoo
Updated: May 14, 2022
In 1996, a black teenager protected a white man from an angry mob who thought he supported the racist Ku Klux Klan. It was an act of extraordinary courage and kindness - and is still inspiring people today.
Keshia Thomas was 18 when the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist organisation, held a rally in her home town in Michigan.
Liberal, progressive and multicultural, Ann Arbor was an unusual place for the KKK to choose, and hundreds of people gathered to show them they were not welcome.
The atmosphere was tense, but controlled. Police dressed in riot gear and armed with tear gas protected a small group of Klansmen in white robes and conical hoods. Thomas was with a group of anti-KKK demonstrators on the other side of a specially-erected fence.
Then a woman with a megaphone shouted, "There's a Klansman in the crowd."
They turned around to see a white, middle-aged man wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt. He tried to walk away from them, but the protesters, including Thomas, followed, "just to chase him out".
It was unclear whether the man was a Ku Klux Klan supporter, but to the anti-KKK protesters, his clothes and tattoos represented exactly what they had come to resist. The Confederate flag he wore was for them a symbol of hatred and racism, while the SS tattoo on his arm pointed to a belief in white supremacy, or worse.
There were shouts of "Kill the Nazi" and the man began to run - but he was knocked to the ground. A group surrounded him, kicking him and hitting him with the wooden sticks of their placards.
Mob mentality had taken over. "It became barbaric," says Thomas.
"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.'"
So the teenager, then still at high school, threw herself on top of a man she did not know and shielded him from the blows.
"When they dropped him to the ground, it felt like two angels had lifted my body up and laid me down."
For Mark Brunner, a student photographer who witnessed the episode, it was who she saved that made Thomas' actions so remarkable.
"She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her," he says. "Who does that in this world?"
So what gave Thomas the impetus to help a man whose views it appeared were so different from her own? Her religious beliefs played a part. But her own experience of violence was a factor, too.
"I knew what it was like to be hurt," she says. "The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me."
The circumstances - which she does not want to describe - were different. "But violence is violence - nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea."
Thomas has never heard from the man she saved, but she did once meet a member of his family. Months later, someone came up to her in a coffee shop and said thanks. "What for?" she asked. "That was my dad," the young man replied.
For Thomas, the fact that the man had a son gave her actions even greater significance - she had potentially prevented further violence.
"For the most part, people who hurt... they come from hurt. It is a cycle. Let's say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?"