There is an absolute hush, a stillness but for the sound of cameras clicking. He tells them how, in 1994, he participated in a program that returned him to Vietnam, where he was welcomed warmly by his former enemies. The next year, he and his wife hosted some of the Vietnamese in their home.
He gazes out over the crowd, still taking his time. “I have been back to Anniston two times before this,” he says. “I’ll never forget when I came back on the 30th anniversary and somebody arranged for me, not to meet with any of the men who were in that mob, but with one of their relatives. And they said to me, when I told them about the kind of welcome I received in North Vietnam, ‘Well, you got shot in Vietnam, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘You got shot because you were the enemy.’ I said, ‘Yes.’
“Well, when you came down here, you were the enemy.’ ”
“I thought about that for a while,” says Thomas, a student rider turned great-grandfather. “I thought about that for a long time. I am very pleased that I am perhaps finally welcome back to Anniston as an American citizen. I thank you very much.”
The room erupts in a sustained standing ovation.
Then comes the coda that completes the moment. A white man in a dark suit stands. He is Richard Couch, a 47-year-old lawyer. His father, Jerome, was one of the Klansmen who attacked the bus that day. He does not, he says, want to steal the limelight from the Freedom Riders. But, he adds, and he is speaking directly to Thomas now, “I appreciate your forgiveness to my family name. And I’m sorry for the hurt that was caused. But I praise God for the blessing that has come out of this. And Anniston is not the same town that you saw 50 years ago. Our hearts are not the same hearts from that date 50 years ago. You talked about going to Vietnam? Let’s do this here in Anniston.”
With that, he opens his arms and all at once, the distance between the two men is bridged in a bear hug. The crowd goes wild.
“Welcome to my town,” says Couch. His voice is choked. The embrace lasts a very long time.