07/08/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
EARLY ON THE AFTERNOON OF JUNE 22, Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the University of Michigan, was experiencing a kind of retrograde horror. Like ghosts from an old newsreel, a reported 17 Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, most of them hooded, were arrayed on the second-floor promenade of City Hall, where officials had allowed them to hold a rally. In the street, meanwhile, 300 anti-Klan protesters were assembling, and one spotted a white male spectator wearing Confederate flags on his vest and T-shirt. Instantly, a swarm of angry-demonstrators rushed him, including an 18-year-old African-American named Keshia Thomas.
"I wanted to yell at him, 'What did I ever do to you?' " Thomas says. "The next thing I know, this one guy hit him with a sign.... Then everybody else started beating him up." Appalled, Thomas, a high school senior from Yp-silanti, Mich., threw herself over the fallen man, shielding him from the kicks and punches. Soon, the unidentified victim, who police say is not a Klan member, was led to a squad car, lucky to escape with a bloody nose.
As the violence escalated, police used Mace and tear gas to subdue the rock-throwing crowd. But the enduring image of the melee would be that of a black teenager risking injury to protect a man she believed was a white supremacist. "He's still somebody's child," explains Thomas, who has at least one unlikely new admirer. "We bless her," says Jeffery Berry, 43, a National Imperial Wizard of the KKK and a Newville, Ind., tow-truck operator. "If you get ahold of her, tell her that Jeff Berry thanks her."
Those who know Thomas aren't surprised by her heroism. "Keshia is an incredibly strong person, with an incredibly big heart," says Desmond Ryan, 54, her drama teacher at Huron High School. Raised by grandparents, Thomas plans to enter community college this fall, and is considering a career in social work. She is bemused by the attention generated by her spontaneous humanity. "This will all be over in a New York minute," she says with a laugh. "People don't have to remember my name. I just want them to remember that I did the right thing."