Person, along with fellow Freedom Rider Bill Harbour, stood today at site of the former Greyhound Bus Station on Gurnee Avenue, where 52 years ago Freedom Riders encountered violence that helped put the movement on the nation’s radar.
They were back in the Model City for a dedication ceremony for a gaslight to mark the historic site.
The lamp is part of the Alagasco's “Lighting the Way” program, in which employees voted on historic events in the state to commemorate with the perpetual flames.
Alagasco president Dudley Reynolds said the company wanted to recognize Alabama’s role in the historic events of the 1960s, but “do it in a way that recognizes a brighter future.”
Other lights have been or will be dedicated in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma.
Person was on the Trailways bus, the second with Freedom Riders to arrive in Anniston on Mothers Day 1961 and be attacked by locals. The riders were testing a Supreme Court ruling that had mandated racial integration of interstate travel facilities. Person’s bus, warned about the bombing of the first bus, managed to make it out of Anniston and to Birmingham on an alternate route, where riders were met by a mob and beaten.
Person said the change in Anniston has been amazing. For years, he was apprehensive about returning, but he said today the city was a new place.
The first time he returned to Anniston, Person refused to get off the bus, instead watching the ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the incident through its window.
“I didn’t want to interact, and that’s naivete on my part,” he said. “I wasn’t open enough to realize people change.”
But 10 years later, he came back with a group of students and stopped to have lunch on Noble Street.
“I cried uncontrollably because I couldn't believe the difference in attitudes from 1961 and what it was in 2011,” he said. “The change was so remarkable.”
Since then, he said, he’s tried to be active in events in the community, participating last year in the dedication of Freedom Riders Park, which will be built at the site of the bus burning.
“I could live here now, seriously,” he said.
Harbour, a Piedmont native, was a student in Nashville when the bus was burned in Anniston. He set out for Birmingham and eventually wound up in Mississippi, where he was jailed for 49 days for his part in the Freedom Rides.
He said today that he thinks the gaslight and planned Freedom Riders Park could bring people — particularly groups of students — to the city, which could provide an economic boost.
Harbour referenced Maya Angelou as he spoke at the ceremony.
“People will forget what you said here; people will forget what you did here, but people will never forget how you make them feel,” he told the crowd. “Anniston, you make us feel proud today.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.