“It’s a significant piece of history that needs to be acknowledged,” said Betsy Bean, director of the Spirit of Anniston, the downtown business promotion group. “It was the first attack, the first major attack, they had some scuffles in Carolina but Anniston was an organized Klan attack.”
The Freedom Riders were a group of black and white people who set out to test a Supreme Court decision that had ordered the racial integration of travel facilities in the country. They were met in Anniston by a group of Klan members who attacked the buses. One bus, a Greyhound, had to stop just outside of town due to damaged tires and it was set on fire; the riders only narrowly escaped the bus when the gas tank exploded forcing the attackers to retreat.
The Trailways bus station on Noble Street was the scene of violence when white men beat black students and then turned their ire on white students who came to their aid.
Mayor Gene Robinson believes the week’s series of events reminding people of the violent reaction to the Freedom Riders in Anniston is important because the history to which they refer reminds people now of the negative example set by many people of the era. The events also serve to document the change the country has gone through since.
“It’s part of American history that never should be repeated,” Robinson said. “It’s good that the celebrations are going on because it’s a continual healing that has gone on for decades.”
If the event was not commemorated, it could be forgotten or dismissed, he said. Bean agreed. In all the research she has done organizing the events, the freedom riders and the contribution they made to the Civil Rights Movement has become more real to her.
“I’ve come to understand and the committee has come to understand how brave these people were and how significant what they did was to destroying segregation,” Bean said.
The week’s events:
• Today, 7 p.m. — Cheaha Dance Alliance performs an original musical drama inspired by the bus burning. Anniston High School auditorium.
• Tuesday, 6 p.m. — Spirit of Anniston hosts a free screening of the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders” at the Anniston High School auditorium. Janie Forsyth McKinney, who as a young girl took water to the freedom riders, will attend.
• Wednesday, 7 p.m. — 2011 Student Freedom Riders attend an invitation-only event at the Anniston Public library with Freedom Riders Hank Thomas, Charles Person and McKinney.
• Thursday, 9 a.m. — Spirit unveils two murals commemorating the bus burning at the former Greyhound and Trailways bus stations on Gurnee Avenue and Ninth and Noble streets.
• Saturday, 11 a.m. — Exhibit of photos of the bus burning shot by Joseph Postoglione opens to the public at Anniston Public Library.