Whenever your view of human nature gets too dark and cynical, think about people like Keshia Thomas, because that’s when you realize that for all of our failings, human beings are capable of extraordinary acts of good.
The story of what the Ann Arbor, Michigan, teenager did 17 years ago — and who she did it for — is being revived today thanks to a BBC News Magazine story that has gone viral. Thomas, now 35 and living in Houston, Texas, looked back on that day, June 22, 1996, when the Ku Klux Klan came to march through her town.
Ann Arbor is known as a politically liberal place. Maybe that’s why the Klan chose it for one if its demonstrations. Then still in high school at age 18, Thomas, an African-American, was in a group of anti-KKK counter-protesters, lined up across from the Klan rally outside Ann Arbor city hall.
With police keeping the racist group apart from the group that Thomas was in, tempers were volatile but under control.
Until, that is, a man wearing confederate flag T-shirt and sporting a tattoo of the Nazi SS symbol on his arm turned up on the wrong side of the street.
Someone yelled, “There’s a Klansman in the crowd!” The man, whose name it was later learned was Albert McKeel, Jr., started walking away. But it was too late.
Shouting, “Kill the Nazi!” the counter-protesters chased him, knocked him to the ground and started beating him.
"It became barbaric," Thomas told the BBC. “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.'"
That someone was the teenage Thomas herself.
"When they dropped him to the ground, it felt like two angels had lifted my body up and laid me down,” she says now. She threw herself across the fallen McKeel, a man she did not know and at least judging by his attire, was someone who may have hated her just for the color of her skin.
With Thomas shielding him, McKeel was spared further injuries.
She never heard from McKeel again and neither the BBC nor the MLive Michigan news web site which also interviewed Thomas this week could reach him. It was never learned whether McKeel was actually a Klansman, or any other form of white supremacist.
But Thomas says that one day several months after the incident, a young white man came up to her in a coffee shop and thanked her.
“For what?” Thomas said.
“That was my dad,” the young man replied.
"Imagine what would have happened if they had killed his father out there," Thomas says today. "That would have just been another person filled with anger, hate and revenge."
SOURCES: BBC News, MLive.com