Anniston and the burning bus: We are obligated to confront our past, no matter how ugly it may be
by Gary Sprayberry
Special to the Star
May 08, 2011 | 8691 views |  5 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The 1961 Freedom Ride attack lays like an open wound in Anniston’s history, stubbornly refusing to heal, impossible to ignore. It represented a dividing line between the past and future. It exposed the community to national and international condemnation. It tarnished the Model City image that civic leaders had been cultivating since the 19th century. It remains Anniston’s most shameful and painful incident.

The story is familiar to most residents. On May 14, 1961, a Greyhound bus carrying members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) arrived in Anniston. CORE had come to the South to test a recent Supreme Court decision barring discriminatory practices along interstate routes.

The Riders encountered minimal resistance as they motored through Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Once they reached Alabama, however, their luck ran out.

A few miles outside of Anniston, Klansmen and members of the National States Rights Party attacked the bus by slashing its tires and shattering windows. When the terrified passengers refused to vacate the vehicle, someone tossed an incendiary device through a back window. Within minutes, flames had devoured the bus.

Photographs of the burning Greyhound ran in newspapers around the globe, soiling the nation’s image as a beacon of democracy.

Anniston’s political and business leaders took careful notice. Realizing that such incidents would only serve to frighten away investors and do further damage to the town’s reputation, they began the slow process of desegregating public and private facilities.

In the spring of 1963, following another round of racial violence, members of the city commission created the Human Relations Council — a biracial committee designed to ameliorate racial conflicts and smooth the way for the eventual desegregation of schools and businesses.

In September, the Council and members of the local library board organized an integration effort at the Carnegie Library. On Sept. 15, just hours after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, two black ministers attempted to use the library’s facilities and were severely beaten by members of the Klan.

Undeterred, and with plenty of police protection, the Human Relations Council made another integration attempt the following day.

It went off without a hitch.

In the coming months, the city government and the biracial committee organized the desegregation of other businesses and civic institutions.

By 1965, Jim Crow was effectively dead in the Model City, and the last vestiges of extremism had been all but driven out.

It was a turning point for Anniston.

A personal odyssey

Nearly four decades later, it became a turning point for me, as well.

I grew up less than a mile from the spot of the Freedom Ride attack. On hot summer days in the late 1970s, my cousin Jim and I would walk down Alabama 202 to the small grocery store near the site of the bus burning to fill our pockets with candy and bubble gum, oblivious to the significance of the place.

Every now and then, an adult would make veiled references to the attack, speaking in hushed tones. But it remained a mystery to me. Why would anyone burn a bus? I thought. Who were these Freedom Riders? How had they managed to provoke such anger and vitriol from the very community I had grown up in?

In college, I finally learned who the Freedom Riders were and what brought them to Anniston. But my knowledge of the attack was superficial at best. It wasn’t until I entered graduate school at the University of Alabama and began doctoral studies in history that I gained a deeper understanding of the bus burning and its impact on the city.

One night in the Gorgas Library, while looking at old microfilm copies of the Atlanta Constitution, I stumbled across a drawer containing The Anniston Star. On a whim, I took out the box marked “May 1961,” loaded the roll onto the projector, fast-forwarded to the day after the bus burning, and started reading. I have been hooked ever since.

I entered graduate school with intentions of researching and writing about the Civil War. But learning about the Freedom Ride attack changed everything.

I became engrossed with the black freedom struggle of the 1960s and Anniston’s role in it. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Grace Hooten Gates to Phil Noble’s 2003 memoir, Beyond the Burning Bus. I made countless trips to the state archives in Montgomery. I became a fixture in the Alabama Room at the Liles Memorial Library. I interviewed dozens of people in the community. I became, for lack of a better term, obsessed. I had found a dissertation topic.

My explorations began with the Freedom Ride attack, but they took me down innumerable paths.

I uncovered the historical origins of the notorious east-west divide in the city and how it has governed social relations ever since.

I discovered that white residents and black soldiers from Camp Shipp exchanged gunfire in the streets of Anniston during the Spanish-American War.

I learned that segregationists from the city, hoping to protect white teenagers from the “evils” of black music, attacked singer Nat “King” Cole on stage at the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium in April 1956.

And I learned about the tragic death of Willie Brewster in 1965, murdered at the hands of white supremacists while he returned home from work.

It has been quite a journey of discovery. But along the way something kept gnawing at me: How could I remain objective while writing about my hometown? Is such a thing even possible?

Historians are trained to be objective – to analyze and synthesize primary source documents without allowing their own personal feelings to enter the picture. I grew up in West End. I graduated from Walter Wellborn High School. I hail from a very proud working-class family.

Has my own worldview been shaped by such experiences? Of course.

Have I allowed it to seep into my work and shape my conclusions? I don’t think so.

I’m convinced that writing about my hometown has made me a more thorough, conscientious and sensitive historian. I have worked assiduously to ensure that I have the story right and that I’ve considered all viewpoints.

It has been a laborious process, and it has probably delayed the publication of my book for a number of years. But I don’t regret it. Anniston’s story is complicated. It requires patience and careful deliberation. It deserves to be told well.

Besides, if I got the story wrong, my parents might have to move!

Researching my hometown has also forced me to confront my own past and that of my forebears. In fact, I’ve often joked that what I’m doing is more like psychoanalysis than history – a painful exploration of a dark, uncertain time.

Sometimes, I have been disturbed by the information I uncover, but it is necessary to lift every rock and peek behind every door to gain a fuller understanding of the past.

Many have suggested that digging up ancient history serves no one’s interest – that all it does is open old wounds. I disagree. It is our obligation to confront the past, regardless of how ugly or disturbing that past may be. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations. If we neglect our history, we deny who we are.

Let’s face it. We’ve all done things we regret. But every minute that we remain above ground represents another chance to make things right again, to correct the mistakes we’ve made.

The Freedom Ride attack – however painful it may be – was Anniston’s chance at redemption. Let’s not waste it. Let’s not deny it. But let’s not exploit it either. Instead, let’s use it as a benchmark to measure all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years.

Gary Sprayberry is an associate professor of history at Columbus State University in Georgia. He is currently writing a book about Anniston during the civil rights era.
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