Photo: George Burns/Harpo Studios
Genevieve Hughes Haughton and Hank Thomas are two of the surviving Freedom Riders who were on the bus that was bombed in Alabama. Fifty years later, Hank, who was 19 years old when he signed on to be a Freedom Rider, still remembers that day.
"The mob had pretty much broken out most of the windows. They were trying to get into the door, but fortunately for us, when the bus driver got off of the bus, he locked the door so they couldn't get inside. So for a moment, I thought we were safe," he says. "I knew that if I got off the bus, I knew the mob would kill me."
Everything changed when the fire began. "After a while, I couldn't breathe any longer so I thought it would be a good idea to go to the front of the bus, and maybe there would be some oxygen there," Genevieve says. "We all proceeded forward."
Outside, Hank says the mob was yelling things like, "We're gonna kill these n*****s," and "Let's burn these n*****s alive." So Hank made a choice—he says he tried to commit suicide.
"I thought that if I breathe in the smoke, took a big deep breath of the smoke, it would put me to sleep and that's the way I would die," he says. "When I did, of course, the involuntary actions of your body take over, and you try to fight for air."
Hank ran to the front of the bus with the other passengers, but when they tried to get off, they were trapped. Hank says the mob had blocked the door. Then, at that moment, the bus' fuel tank exploded. "When it exploded, everybody ran, the ones outside, and that's the only way we were able to get off of that bus," Hank says.