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on October 31, 2013 at 5:35 AM, updated October 31, 2013 at 12:39 PM
The Ann Arbor News
Keshia Thomas is now in her 30s and living in Texas, but she’s still remembered for an act of courage and kindness at the age of 18 when she saved a man in a Confederate shirt from being beaten outside a Ku Klux Klan rally in Ann Arbor.
The Ann Arbor News caught up with Thomas by phone on Wednesday as accounts of her inspiring story from the 1996 incident were once again making their way around the web following a feature story in BBC News Magazine.
“Personally, the one thing I take away from it is that you never know what change can happen in just a moment,” she said of how things unfolded that day. “Whether you do the right thing or the wrong thing, change happens in just a moment.”
Thomas was with an anti-KKK group protesting the rally the white supremacist organization was holding outside Ann Arbor’s city hall on June 22, 1996. At one point, a woman with a megaphone shouted, “There’s a Klansman in the crowd!”
Thomas, who was still in high school, turned and saw Albert McKeel Jr., clad in a Confederate shirt with a Nazi tattoo on his arm. It wasn’t long before mob mentality took over and the crowd had McKeel on the ground.
Thomas, horrified to see the man being kicked and beaten, threw herself on top of McKeel to shield him from the blows.
Thomas said she hasn’t had any contact with McKeel since that day, but she did meet one of his family members some months after the incident. She said a younger man came up to her in a coffee shop and thanked her.
“For what?” she asked. “That was dad,” the man replied.
Learning that the man had a son, Thomas said, gave her a greater perspective on everything.
“Imagine what would have happened if they had killed his father out there,” she said. “That would have just been another person filled with anger, hate and revenge.”
Attempts to reach McKeel were unsuccessful.
Thomas, who was born in Detroit and raised in Ann Arbor, said she moved out of the area back in 2002 and lived in southern California for a while before moving to Houston about a year ago, where she now works at a restaurant.
She said she still has family in the Ann Arbor area and plans to move back to Michigan before long so she can be part of the revitalization of Detroit.
“Detroit is getting a lot of negative attention with the bankruptcy and everything that’s going on, but I’m really proud of what people are doing there,” she told the Ann Arbor News on Wednesday. “We have to continue to go forward.”
Thomas said she’s concerned about the violence that plagues the city, where the homicide rate is the highest it’s been in 20 years and shootings occur daily. FBI crime statistics show Detroit witnessed 386 homicides in 2012.
“You can’t change an environment like Detroit until you change people’s thought process,” Thomas said. “If you can change somebody’s mind, thoughts and ideas, then their actions change, and that’s the most important thing.”
Thomas said she’s still trying to make a difference in the world and still trying to break down racial stereotypes through small acts of kindness.
She said disaster relief work has been a passion of hers over the years, whether that’s meant going to Ground Zero after the twin towers fell or helping those in need following Hurricane Katrina and wildfires in California.
Word from me:
To add to this story, McKeel’s son found her later in his life and thanked her for stepping in to protect his father that day. I think that right there shows a lot about the effect she had. The son didn’t have to come to seek her out, but he did, the son of a clansman sought to seek her out to thank her .
Imagine that….. 🙂