Heroic woman in iconic photo from a Klan rally shares disturbing update 20 years later

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Follow-Up: The African-American Woman Who Shielded a Man in a Confederate Flag T-Shirt From Attacks

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."

Black woman saves racist from mob(Photo credit: Getty)

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."

Related: Learn more about the history of the KKK:

23 PHOTOS
Ku Klux Klan (KKK) throughout history
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Ku Klux Klan (KKK) throughout history
1866: A wood engraving depicting two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white sheet and hood were supposed to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers risen from the dead to seek revenge. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Kayne Township. Ku Klux Klan Wedding In New Jersey. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Long Island, NY-Ku Klux Klan with hands raised in oath during night meeting.
20th March 1922: Members of the white supremacist movement, the Ku Klux Klan standing by an aeroplane, out of which they dropped publicity leaflets over Washington DC. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 1/4/1923-Homestead, FL: Photo shows gathering of the Ku Klux Klan, members of the invisible empire, at Homestead, FL., thirty miles South of Miami, and within three miles of the Southern most point of the mainland of the United States. The Imperial Wizard of he Klan is somewhere in the group. But, he just won't make himself known.
Ku Klux Klan members hold a march in Washington, DC, on August 9, 1925.
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Ku Klux Klan Ritual At Atlanta In Usa During Thirties (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Over 100,000 people are expected in Washington for the Klan parade and gathering. Government buildings are all guarded in case of disorder. Photo shows members of the Women's K.K.K. of Virginia marching down Pennsylvania Ave.
5/07/98 PHOTOGRAPHER: Susan Biddle - TWP Wheaton, Md. BRIEF DESCRIPTION: Darryl Davis and his KKK collection Davis, a blues pianist, meets as many KKK guys as he can to find out why they are as they are. He has a collection of robes and other KKK items such as this medallion. (KU KLUX KLAN) (Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
A young protester argues with Thom Robb during a Ku Klux Klan rally in Stephenville, Texas. Robb is the national director of the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (Photo by ?? Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Don Black, wearing a suit and tie, with white-gowned Klan members in the background.
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Ku Klux Klan members supporting Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, San Francisco, California, as an African American man pushes signs back: 12 July 1964. Photographer: Warren K Leffler. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Parade of the Ku Klux Klan, in regalia and carrying the stars and stripes, through counties of Virginia bordering on the District of Columbia, America, 1926. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Ku Klux Klan members march through downtown Houston under heavy police protection. (Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) The Ku Klux Klan failed to make good its threat to parade through the streets of this town today and instead had a small parade in Neptune City and Neptune Township. Less than 3,000 men, women, and children marched in the parade, headed by Arthur H. Bell, Grand Dragon of the Realm of New Jersey. Some of the Klansmen were robed and masked, others wore their robes with hoods lifted. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
Members of the Ku Klux Klan attend a demonstration in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. They are protesting against the Martin Luther King holiday. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan (Photo by F. Carter Smith/Sygma via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 23: Jeffery Berry, national imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (l.), Grand Dragon James Sheehy (nursing his would after being attacked), and other Klan members hold a rally at Foley Square near the New York State Supreme Court House. (Photo by Budd Williams/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
VALLEY FORGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Ku Klux Klan member shows off his tattoo during an American Nazi party member during American Nazi Party rally at Valley Forge National Park September 25, 2004 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of American Nazis from around the country were expected to attend. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
SHARPSBURG, MD - SEPTEMBER 07: Members of the Confederate White Knights hold a flag during a rally at the Antietam National Battlefield September 7, 2013 near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Rosedale, Maryland Ku Klux Klan group held the rally to protest against the administration of President Barack Obama and the U.S. immigration policies. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 18: Ku Klux Klan members take part in a Klan demonstration at the state house building on July 18, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The KKK protested the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house grounds, as law enforcement tried to prevent violence between the opposing groups. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Demostrators take part in a protest against asylum seekers brought to stay at a former army barracks in the Hennala district in Lahti late September 24, 2015. Demonstrators threw stones and launched fireworks at a bus full of asylum seekers arriving at a reception centre in Lahti in southern Finland, late on Thursday, Finnish media reported on Friday. Between 30 and 40 demonstrators, one in a white robe like those worn by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in the United States, waved the Finnish flag and shouted abuse at the bus. Picture taken September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Heikki Ahonen/Lehtikuva ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. FINLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN FINLAND.
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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.

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