May 13, 2011
by Phillip Martin
ANNISTON, Ala. — A new generation of Freedom Riders recites poetry, hip-hop lyrics and old-school protest songs across this stretch of Georgia.
But, as we cross the state line on the Old Birmingham Highway, they fall silent as one of the original Freedom Riders takes to the microphone.
“Welcome to Alabama,” said Charles Person. He was also welcoming the bus to the scene of one of the most frightening moments in American civil rights history.
Person was 18 years old when he was chosen by the Congress of Racial Equality to be one of 13 riders to head south, in an attempt to integrate interstate travel – the busses and bus stations where “white” areas and “colored” areas so famously reigned.
Two busses left Atlanta: a Greyhound and a Trailway. Person was on the Trailway bus. The night before, Martin Luther King Jr. himself warned the riders not to go on – that they’d have trouble when they reached Alabama.
“But we didn’t think much of it. And we went through Cedartown, which was a little town a few miles back, and a gentlemen got off and said, you people had it good in here in Georgia, but just wait until you get to Alabama,” Person said. “And we all know what happened to the Greyhound Bus.”
What happened is well documented in the new PBS film “Freedom Riders,” which premieres on WGBH on Monday.
“When we got to Anniston, the bus driver got on, and says, ‘I hear that the Greyhound bus had been burned to the ground, and they’d been taking the passengers to the hospital by the carloads,” Person said.
That was 50 years ago. Things are very different in Anniston today. The students are literally greeted with open arms, stepping one by one from the bus, parked parallel to a restaurant on Main Street.
Aniston officials and a number of its citizens want the world to know that it has changed. Ray Bryan is the board chair of a civic group called the Spirit of Anniston committee.
“From the previous welcome I hope we will show something a little different. We believe it’s a different time,” Bryan said. “We’ve been preparing for this for about a year now and we’re grateful it’s finally here. We want to do everything we can to make everyone feel as welcome as possible, and extend the hospitality of Anniston today.”
In their cars, passersby stare at the bright yellow Freedom Riders banner emblazoned across the bus, which idles in front of the popular Classic Restaurant here on Noble Street. This was formerly a Woolworth’s Store, where non-whites in 1961 were not allowed to eat or drink at the counter.
Georgia Calhoun, another member of the Spirit of Anniston, compares life then and now as if the changes took place yesterday.
“I can go anywhere and eat. I can drink water where I want to drink water. I can ride where I want to on the bus,” Calhoun said. “We’re tellers in the banks and we are in everything now.”
After a dinner hosted by the town committee, the new student and surviving members of the original group of Freedom Riders are ushered to a photo exhibit and forum at the town library. Hank Thomas, a 1961 Freedom Rider, stands and addresses the crowd.
“Two years ago… this time, when I return maybe somebody will see me as an American and give me respect. “
At six feet, four inches Hank Thomas stood out when he emerged from the burning bus in 1961, and was set upon by the mob. He stands out now, towering above those in attendance this evening.
Two years after Thomas left the Freedom Ride, he went to Vietnam, where he won a Purple Heart.
“Couldn’t sit on the front seat of the bus, couldn’t walk into a restaurant here in Anniston, but my country wanted me to go and defend the rights of the Vietnamese from the dreaded Communists, so that they could have freedom and liberty.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Hank Thomas says he visited Anniston.
“I had been back to Anniston two times before this. To see this welcome here tonight, it is indeed a wonderful sight. That I am perhaps finally welcomed back to Anniston as an American citizen. I thank you very much,” Thomas said.
It was at that moment that Richard Couch, the son of a man who took part in the vicious attacks on Freedom Riders that day in May of ’61, turned to Hank Thomas and apologized.
“I’m sorry for the hurt this has caused. And Anniston’s not the same town that you saw 50 years ago. And our hearts are not the same hearts,” Couch said.
There has not yet been an official apology for the violence of 50 years ago. Just off the highway, on the very spot where the Greyhound Bus was firebombed, some of the student freedom riders wonder just how serious Aniston’s gestures of reconciliation really are.
The town has undergone tremendous change in the last few decades, leaving the community in dire financial straights. And some wonder if economic considerations are fueling efforts to alter its historic reputation.
On the bus, Student Freedom rider Marshall Houston of the University of Alabama is heartened by the changing attitudes among some in his state. He says they could serve to contravene the lingering images that seem to forever characterize Alabama.
“My experience as a native Alabaman, as a native of Birmingham, a seventh-generation Alabaman, my family history’s intimately linked with this state. I hope we can begin to lead us to question and start to critique so we can understand ourselves and understand and better create relationships and connect with other people,” Houston said.
A mural showing the famous Greyhound now adorns the bus station wall in downtown Anniston. Some see this honor to the Freedom Riders of 1961 as a sign of progress.
From here, Student Freedom Riders move on to Birmingham and Montgomery, the next stops along this journey through history and memory.