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08/31/2016 09:52 am ET

Heroic Woman In Iconic Photo From A Klan Rally Shares Disturbing Update 20 Years Later

Keshia Thomas says she still gets death threats and hate mail for protecting the white man in the picture.

In 1996, the Ku Klux Klan announced its plans to hold a rally in Keshia Thomas’ hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Like many who were staunchly against the white supremacist group, 18-year-old Keshia joined other anti-KKK protestors that day in what was intended to be a peaceful demonstration against the Klan’s hatred. But Keshia had no idea that the event ― and her role in it ― would still have a powerful impact decades later.

As Keshia stood with other demonstrators in a designated area, someone with a megaphone shouted that a Klansman was among the protest group.

He was a middle-aged white man with an SS tattoo and a Confederate flag T-shirt. He began to run, but was knocked to the ground by the mob. Several protestors surrounded the man, kicking and hitting him. Then Keshia stepped in.

Instinctively, the teen threw her body over the alleged Nazi, risking her life to protect his own. A photographer named Mark Brunner snapped a photo of the moment, which went on to become one of Life magazine’s “Pictures of the Year.”

Mark Brunner via Getty Images

Two years after the incident, Keshia appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and shared what made her use her body as a shield to help a person believed to be filled with racism and bigotry.

“It was the right thing to do,” she said back then. “He was still a human being.”

It’s now been 20 years since Keshia’s courageous act. “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” followed up with her to learn how that day impacted her life, and as Keshia explains in the above video, the aftermath included mixed reactions. 

“All of a sudden, I’m in Life magazine and Oprah’s calling... I was overwhelmed and amazed,” Keshia says. “Now, on the flip side of that coin, I got a lot of hate mail. A lot of people, still to this day, hate me. I get death threats and they want me to die because they feel that what I’ve done is traded my race.”  

A lot of people, still to this day, hate me. I get death threats.

Even so, Keshia stands firmly behind her decision to help a fellow human being. Had she not, she reasons, that man may have died.

“I do believe that people were caught up in a rage and they would have killed this man,” she says. “The energy in that air was extremely violent.”

Though Keshia never heard from the man, she says she did encounter someone who expressed sincere gratitude for her selfless actions.

“I was downtown at a coffee house back in the day, and a kid came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I want to say thanks... That was my dad,’” Keshia recalls.

For the lifelong activist, that interaction sums up the humanitarian aspect of why she did what she did.

“At the end of the day, this was somebody’s father.”

“Oprah: Where Are They Now?” airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.

Another woman from an iconic photo of race relations:

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BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
A Day in the Life of the KKK
CONVERSATIONS