“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…none of these will lose their reward.”
It was Mother’s Day 1961. A few months earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a ruling outlawing racial segregation of restaurants, restrooms, and waiting areas in bus stations that served interstate travel.
As most could have predicted, local authorities in the South had no intention of obeying the Supreme Court order.
A group of 13 men and women, black and white, most of them college students, decided to force the issue. Calling themselves the Freedom Riders, they boarded two buses in Washington DC, bound for New Orleans, to test the “colored” and “white” signs in bus terminals across the deep South.
They were not naive. They knew violence was probable. They knew they could die. These college students wrote and signed their wills before they embarked on their journey, but they deeply believed they were doing what was right.
The buses made it to Atlanta without incident, but the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned them that the Ku Klux Klan had “quite a welcome” prepared for them in Alabama.
The buses made it to Anniston, Alabama the next day. The Greyhound Station was locked, and suddenly the buses were surrounded by mobs of angry white people, many of them Klan members, coming from church. They slashed the tires, and attacked the buses with metal pipes and chains.
The buses managed to get away, but the flat tires finally forced the drivers to pull over in front of Forsyth Grocery Store in Anniston. The mob had followed them.
Hank Thomas, who was 19, remembers what happened next.
“The mob had pretty much broken out the windows,” he said. “They were trying to get into the door, but the door was locked. So for a minute I thought we were safe.
“I knew that if we got off the bus that mob would kill us.”
Then fire broke out in the bus.
“Inside there was fire,” Thomas recalls. “Outside there was the mob yelling they were going to kill us.”
Thomas decided that the best thing for him to do was to commit suicide.
“I thought that if I breathed in the smoke, took a deep breath of smoke, it would put me to sleep, and that’s the way I would die. When I did, of course, the involuntary actions of the body took over, and I began trying to fight for air.”
Then there was a blast from the bus’ fuel tank.
“When it exploded, the mob ran away,” Thomas said. “That’s the only way we were able to get off that bus.”
Amidst the mob there was an unexpected doer of the good that day.
Janie Forsyth was 12. Her father told her that morning that there was “quite a surprise party” planned for the Freedom Riders that day. He owned the little country grocery store where the buses were forced to stop. Janie was in the store.
“The bus door burst open, and people just spilled out,” she says. “It was horrible. It was like a scene from hell. It was the worst suffering I’ve ever seen. People were on the ground, coughing, begging for water.”
So the preteen girl responded. She got a towel, a glass, and a bucket of water, and headed outside, pushing her way through the mob of angry white men, most of whom she knew.
She first went to a black woman in deep distress. “I washed her face,” Janie says. “I held her. I gave her water to drink. Then I got up and went to somebody else.” When she ran out of water she got more and went back again.
Years later, an adult Janie reflected on her preteen self and what she remembers as an “out of body” experience.
“I had just been saved in the Methodist Church, and I was trying to live my life as Jesus would live it.,” she said.
“I knew it would get me in trouble. I knew it was dangerous. I was scared to death, but I knew I couldn’t let that get in the way.”
When asked if she considered herself heroic, Janie replied that her actions were “necessary to my definition of being a human being. The Good Samaritan — I was raised on that. I couldn’t let it pass. I couldn’t let that insult pass without doing something against it.
“If you get a chance to do something that is right, and you feel like God is putting you out there to make a difference, then you just have to do it,” she said.
Among those Janie helped that day was Hank Thomas. They met again for the first time 50 years later.
“All these years I’ve thought about her and her bravery and wondered what happened to her,” he said. “Of all the ugliness and evil that took place in Anniston that day, this was the little angel. And I will never, never forget her.”
A simple act of kindness requiring a great act of courage.
We have seen other acts of kindness recently. There were clergy and laity at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House in Washington DC, who offered their patio as an oasis to peaceful protesters of racial injustice.
They gave out water and medical help to those who needed it.
Their reward here was to be tear gassed and violently forced from church property by National Guard troops to clear the way for a presidential photo op. I’m sure Jesus has a better reward waiting for them.
Last week we saw another simple act of kindness that required courage, when Nascar drivers and crews joined together to surround Bubba Wallace, the only African American driver, after it appeared he had been the victim of a hate crime when Nascar announced it would no longer allow fans to display the Confederate flag inside their venues.
Fellow driver Ty Dillon explained why their actions were necessary.
“For me, I can tell you it’s about my heart,” he said. “I don’t care if I ever win a race or a championship in my life or lose every follower I have on Instagram, but when my children grow older and I take my last breath, I want it to be made sure that I was on the right side of history.
“And that means way more than acquiring fame and trophies and wins,” he said.
“Those things fade away. But the impact you had on human beings in your life, the relationships last forever.”
Freedom Riders, a 12-year-old girl, protesters against racial injustice, clergy and laity, Nascar drivers and crew.
Givers of water, doers of good who surely will receive the rewards of the righteous.
“If you get a chance to do something that is right, and you feel like God is putting you out there to make a difference, then you just have to do it.”